Belfast Telegraph

How dare Belfast city council take our loved ones' effects

By Gail Walker

It's like something out of a horror movie or a satirical novel. But it's actually for real. Belfast City Council rummages through the debris of our loved ones' cremated bodies for metal hips, gold teeth and fillings and the jewellery of our dear departed. These are then recycled.

The council points to the facts that they were concerned about protecting the environment, that they were not recycling the metals for money, that indeed charities profited from the recycling of precious metals.

But they had no right to do what they did - keeping relatives in the dark about how parts of their loved ones were ending up as Dutch road signs or engines of jet aircraft. It simply isn't right. We may be divided over whether there is an afterlife but the vast majority of us feel (give or take the odd lunatic 'rationalist') that there should be dignity in death.

That the remains of our dear departed should be treated with every respect. We all recognise the profundity of death. Indeed, the whole ceremonial of cremation provided by the council depends completely on that idea of dignity, sometimes to an absurd degree. But we can only relate to death through ritual, whether it be a solemn requiem, a simple parish service or a humanist send-off, with the loved one's favourite poems and the strains of Robbie Williams' Angels or Frank Sinatra's My Way.

But where is the dignity in a loved one's ashes being trawled through with tongs and an industrial magnet to extract precious metals - which, we should remind ourselves, are not just necessarily prosaic items like false hips but include wedding rings, jewellery and the remains of rosaries wrapped round the fingers of the loved one? And where is the dignity in relatives being treated like fools? Since 2010 when Belfast City Council joined the scheme, there have been more than 11,000 cremations at Roselawn.

More than two tonnes of metal have been extracted and shipped to Holland to be recycled into goodness knows what. Not one family was told what was to happen to parts of their loved ones. How many of those families are grieving afresh today? How many left a wedding ring on their mother and father on the simple, reasonable understanding that their loved one would not want to be parted from it? Or an 18th birthday necklace on a daughter because it felt like a tangible gift that would reach between this world and the next.

This is not the stuff of logic but the intimate, intricate workings of the heart, real emotions that the council decided to ignore. And what do the relatives get from the council? The back of the hand: "It is not deemed necessary to provide this information and no family has ever requested it. However, we keep this under review." So, relatives are at fault for not asking about something they knew nothing about. But even the Institute for Cemetery and Crematorium Management, which runs the scheme, recommends that relatives should be informed and have the opportunity to opt out. It recommends that relatives keep jewellery of emotional significance. But it considers that there is nothing legally wrong with what happens to the metals because they have been "abandoned".

Well, that's a matter of opinion, reverend. The fact is, the items are no more 'abandoned' than the body of the deceased is.

Another fact is that most people thinking that a watch was going to end up in a fancy blender, will decide to pass it down the generations after all. More importantly, many would have been horrified at the idea of their loved ones' remains being raked for valuables. It may be naïve but most of us think that essentially the body is reduced to ashes that are put into a little urn for relatives to bury or scatter as they wish. The idea that they are subject to practices more suitable for a scrap yard simply never occurs to them. Quite reasonably, they would have assumed that the city council was acute to their sensibilities.

The public has a right to know. They may be grief-stricken but they are not children and it's not in the council's remit to burgle corpses. It is not enough to keep the situation "under review". The situation as it stands is unethical. It is wrong and deceptive. It is time for Belfast City Council to do the right thing.

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