July 5 2016: Fighting to win back trust: Inside Aberdeen’s crematorium

The Evening Express, July 5 2016

Families are gathering at the front of Hazlehead Crematorium as they get ready to say goodbye to their loved one.

The midweek service is the last of the day at the council-run facility, which cremates around 50 to 60 people a week during the summer months, but can reach 90 in winter.

We enter the reception between the East and West chapels, to be greeted by the friendly crematorium staff and Mark Reilly, head of public infrastructure and environment at the council.

They are reeling after a week when the National Cremation Investigation found “unethical and abhorrent practices” had taken place at the crematorium.

probe: Aberdeen City Council’s legal team is to consider the implications of Dame Elish’s report on the scandal. Inset, how the EE broke the story.Photographs: Chris Sumner

There has been shock throughout Scotland after the report said it was “commonplace” to cremate infants and adults in the same chamber.

It was also found baby and adult ashes were mixed together and given back to the relatives of the adult, while the parents of the infant were told there were no ashes.

Council staff are desperate to reassure people that today things are different.

However, they know winning back trust will take time.

“We need to find ways of explaining to the general public that we were wrong in the past but things are not wrong anymore,” says Mr Reilly.

“It is going to be a fight, it’s an uphill climb but we want to show how our procedures have changed.”


In a room behind the reception, an office worker is sorting out yellow identification cards. These cards are matched to coffins when they arrive at the crematorium and are referred to throughout the process.

Cremations are carried out on the day of the service. It is very rare for cremations to be held over until the next day – only if there’s been a breakdown or other operational reason – and it is only with family consent.

The coffins are laid on trays in the rest room before being brought into the chapel for the funeral service.

The rest rooms where coffins wait before the service.
The rest rooms where coffins wait before the service.

After the service the coffin is placed back on a trolley and taken to one of four cremators.

For adults, two workers arrange for the coffin to be placed inside the cremator.

The temperature, which is controlled by a computer, is around 795C although the cremator reaches more than 1100C during the process.

Before the coffin is entered into the chamber, the yellow card and ID on the coffin is checked again.

Inside an empty crematory chamber.

“As soon as any difference is noticed, the process is stopped immediately until it is rectified,” says Mr Reilly.

“For example sometimes you get discrepancies with spellings of names.”

Adult cremations take around 90 minutes.

After every last flicker of flame has gone out, the ashes are raked by the operator into a pan below and left to cool for about 90 minutes.

The crematory.

Those ashes are then entered into a cremulator, which reduces them to a fine granular consistency. Accompanied by the yellow card, the ashes are placed in an urn with a pre-printed label attached and transported to the storeroom, ready for family to collect.

The same cremators are used for infant and foetus cremations but there is a different process.

Technicians use a metal tray to contain the casket or coffin. Wearing protective clothing, they place the tray just inside the door of the cremator.

Safety outfits worn by staff
Safety outfits worn by staff

The tray is not in direct line of the burner.

Mr Reilly describes the process as “gentle”. The temperature for cremating infants does not rise above 800C.

He says: “The heat is far gentler.”

The cremation can take up to two-and-a-half hours.

The tray is then removed and allowed to cool.

A cremulator which sorts adult ashes.

Technicians manually grind the ashes in a nickel bowl using a steel ball.

Mr Reilly says the crematorium began using this process around two-and-a-half years ago to ensure families were able to receive ashes.

“The process of cremating babies with trays commenced in November 2013,” he says.

“Since then we have a 100% success rate of recovering ashes using the tray and we are confident this will continue.”

Metal found in the ashes is ethically recycled, with money being donated to the stillbirth and neonatal death charity SANDS.

Mark Reilly the Head of Public Infrastructure and Enviroment for Aberdeen City Council.
Mark Reilly the Head of Public Infrastructure and Enviroment for Aberdeen City Council.

Mr Reilly is keen to stress that the council has never approved of the historic practice of cremating babies along with unrelated adults.

Exceptions for shared cremations include when it is requested by a family.

Shared cremations are also carried out on instruction from the NHS of foetuses from pregnancy loss, where the parents have not requested an individual cremation.

“Other than the exceptions, the council would not condone shared cremations in any forms because it was against the industry body’s Code of Practice,” says Mr Reilly.

“If the council knew at the time this practice would have been stopped.”


As we are leaving at around 4pm, cremations are still taking place.

It is clear the culture has changed in the council-run crematorium.

Mr Reilly says it is “so important” for bereaved families to be able to have ashes.

He adds: “Our staff’s main concern is for the families, and I’d like to think our staff come across as caring and professional.”

If council knew practice would have been stopped

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