Don’t Blame Current Staff for Lost Baby Ashes at Mortonhall Crematorium
It is shocking that an investigation, led by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, had to be launched into why the cremated remains of babies were buried in a mass unmarked grave at Mortonhall Crematorium, in Edinburgh. For the bereaved parents, it must be extremely painful, incomprehensible even, to be denied access to their babies’ ashes.
That apart, I happen to believe that the people who work in Edinburgh’s graveyards are unsung heroes. I should know. I live in one of the Capital’s graveyards. There is a river beyond the graves, an old church nearby and a shadowy dell in which the sun spills through the trees. There are kingfishers, otters, deer-you name it. From our cottage, we can see the whole graveyard. The visitors are few but always interesting – most notably the Cleavers, as we call them, two large men who bend over to tend a grave, allowing their trousers to slip below the point of decency, exposing cleavage at the rear, just beneath the love handles.
We also have the most amazing team of men who look after this graveyard. They are Paul, Peter, Kevin, Dino and Gareth. These guys are drop-dead (pardon the pun) gorgeous. Outdoors in all kinds of Scottish weather, they look like men are supposed to look: huge biceps, six packs, bulging thighs, glistening eyes and, boy, do they work hard. They use heavy machinery. They fetch, carry, dig and plant. In this technological age, these men are the real thing: that old-fashioned sweat of the brow after a hard day’s labour; limbs which ache from toiling. No flash business lunches for these workers-just a flask of tea and a sandwich. Most noticeable of all, these keepers of the graveyard are dignified with relatives of the deceased. They are so, so kind to them – in a way that boosts your faith in the basic goodness of people. They manage, always, to be respectful when dealing with the grieving, who, believe me, can include some of the most obnoxious so-and-so’s on earth. We have stayed here for 15 years. We know. Occasionally, bereaved people, mistakenly, knock on our door and ask whether we can help them find their parents’ grave or say they want to complain about something. We explain we are not responsible for the graveyard. In fact, I do go round checking the graves are all neat and tidy – only because I love this place so much.
I have to say the dead make wonderful neighbours but, the living – especially the grieving – can be unbelievably vicious. At times, I hear them outside, moaning to the council guys about something so trivial, I want to go out there and slap them in the face. One man, who regularly visits his father’s grave, complained constantly to us that his particular corner of the graveyard was neglected. Eventually, I mentioned it to the graveyard guys. Their response was little short of astonishing. They dug, they planted. They slashed weeds. They worked solidly on that one corner of the graveyard. It was transformed, utterly and beautifully. Then, after all their hard work, this man had the gall to complain to the council – just because they removed one little plant he’d left on the grave. It was ingratitude writ large.
Our graveyard caretakers rarely receive the praise they are due. I believe it is because the average person does not cope well with loss. None of us is equipped to deal with the death of someone close. A graveyard gives a bereaved family a focus; somewhere to mourn and, hopefully, to heal. You see people coming in to the graveyard looking morose but once they have laid their flowers, most go away smiling, happier. Maybe more visitors could give a thought to the men who work so hard to ensure our deceased relatives and friends really do rest in peace.
These men and their bosses at Mortonhall Crematorium, the people who work so hard to keep Edinburgh’s burial places spic and span, should never be used as a scapegoat for the sins of their predecessors.
Article focus: Mortonhall Crematorium