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Baby ashes parents seek apology

Published 01/06/2015

Co-operative Funeralcare has operated Emstrey Crematorium under contract to Shropshire Council since late 2011
Co-operative Funeralcare has operated Emstrey Crematorium under contract to Shropshire Council since late 2011

Distressed parents who did not receive ashes after their babies were cremated want an apology after a report found that ashes were not recovered in more than 50 cases.

The probe into infant cremations at the Emstrey Crematorium in Shrewsbury looked at the issue which the report describes as "a matter of the very utmost importance to families who have lost a child".

A number of angry parents who later realised that other crematoria would have returned ashes to them are now seeking an apology from those responsible for denying them their baby's ashes.

The report established that between January 2000 and December 2014, there were 57 infant cremations within the inquiry's terms of reference.

There were an additional two cases outside the age criteria, but which parents asked to have included, and of these 59 cremations, 53 were conducted between 2000 and 2013.

For 51 of these, ashes were not recovered, the report concluded.

Emstrey Crematorium and cemetery are situated in the south-eastern outskirts of Shrewsbury, and the crematorium, which is set in well-maintained gardens, has been in operation since 1958 and serves communities throughout Shropshire and mid Wales.

The independent inquiry was commissioned by Shropshire Council and the report's foreword says that the inquiry established that the cremation equipment and techniques employed at Emstrey Crematorium between 1996 and 2012 resulted in there being no ashes from the cremation of children of less than a year old that could be returned to funeral directors and families.

"This practice seems to have been accepted locally as the norm," it said.

The inquiry's report added: "Some parents, having learned that other crematoria would have returned ashes to them, feel not only distressed but also angry.

"A number have emphasised to us that they now seek an apology from whomever was responsible for denying them their baby's ashes.

"One family say that they cannot understand why, when the issue came to light, someone did not hold their hands up, take responsibility, and take swift action to put things right for the future."

The inquiry found that some parents think they understood at the time that they were unlikely to receive ashes after the cremation at Emstrey, but are now distressed to discover that had the cremation been conducted at some other crematoria they would have been likely to have had ashes returned to them.

Some parents did not at first understand that there would be no ashes to be returned to them, and felt shocked, and sometimes angry, when they discovered that there would be none.

In one case, of a slightly older child, the parents recall that they were told that there would be no ashes, and only later discovered that in fact there had been ashes, which had been spread in the crematorium garden without their knowledge.

The report said parents cannot understand how a child could be cremated, through a competent and conscientious process, and no ashes remain.

Some families see a "cavalier disregard" by public officials for the sensitivity of their feelings.

However, the report stated that crematorium staff feel they have conscientiously and professionally carried out a sensitive job in accordance with the standards they were instructed to meet and using the equipment that was made available to them.

The report added: "There can surely be no more painful experience than losing one's infant child.

"Parents who have lost their child at birth have vividly explained to me how their joy, after building up for months, suddenly and unexpectedly turned to grief.

"Having expected to be choosing names, clothes and toys, they found themselves instead having to make decisions about burial or cremation, form of ceremony, hymns and readings.

"For some the decisions they made in the days immediately following the death of their baby remain a blur in their memory. They are not quite sure now who said what to whom and what their options were."

The cremators that were in use at Emstrey from 1996 to 2012 did not have an automated special infant setting.

The records show that from 2013 - when new cremators, new techniques, and a baby tray were introduced - to the end of 2014, there were six cremations of infants falling within the inquiry's terms of reference, and ashes were recovered in all six cases.

The report stressed that t he issue of infant cremations at Emstrey producing no ashes that can be returned to families is an historic rather than a current one.

John Williamson, Head of Operations for Co-operative Funeralcare, which has operated Emstrey Crematorium under contract to Shropshire Council since late 2011, said: "Any death, particularly that of a baby, is an incredibly painful experience and we extend our most sincere condolences to the families impacted by the Emstrey Inquiry who have continued to face uncertainty following the loss of their child."

Mr Williamson said that upon taking over the management of the crematorium, their priority was to invest significantly in the site by upgrading facilities and replacing the cremation equipment previously in use.

"This was a significant upgrade and once plans were approved in early 2012, work commenced by March 2012, with the new cremators in place by late 2012," he said.

"In the interim period after we took over responsibility for the running of Emstrey and prior to new equipment and processes being introduced, there were four infant cremations for which ashes were not obtained. To these families, we would like to personally apologise.

"Following the introduction of new cremators, equipment and processes, ashes have been recovered in all infant cremations since January 2013. As outlined by the Inquiry, the failure to return ashes after infant cremations is historic rather than current and we believe that families can have confidence in the crematorium today," he added.

The position of Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, is that denying grieving parents the choice of having ashes following the cremation of their baby is unacceptable.

Their view is that if there will be no ashes at all, parents must be informed so that they can make other arrangements if they wish.

Sands consider that unless offering ashes to parents becomes standard practice, public trust in crematoria practice is unlikely to be restored.

They are calling for a UK-wide review of baby cremation practice to ensure a consistent approach to the cremation of very premature, stillborn and very young babies.

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