A modern-day grave robbing

Niall McCracken’s story on The Detail website today exposed a practice at Belfast City Council-owned Roselawn Crematorium where jewellery, gold teeth, metal hips and other metals collected from the ashes of cremated bodies are collected into containers and sent to The Netherlands where the material is sorted, sold for recycling and any profits after costs then donated to charitable causes.

At issue here is the fact that families of over 11,000 people who were cremated since the scheme began in 2010 had no knowledge that this was happening and had no opportunity to either give or withhold their consent.

One caller, Mervyn, to BBC’s Talkback programme, described how his wife who had died of cancer was cremated and that when her coffin was closed, she was wearing not only her wedding rings but a gold cross around her neck that he had bought for her in Rome. They had discussed before her death the arrangements for her funeral and she had wanted to wear this necklace. His hurt and anger was tangible in that interview.

It’s totally irrelevant and somewhat demeaning to be told that no-one profited from the recycling scheme and that the profits after costs were donated to charity. The company in question, Orthometals, doesn’t appear to be a non-profit or charitable venture so in the first instance I would be more inclined to think that net profits ie charitable donations are not significant. We do know that processing costs and a 20% fee are charged by the company. Secondly we know that Belfast City Council has not nominated a charity to receive the proceeds of this scheme. Who therefore have been the beneficiaries?

Those are questions of fact rather than questions of ethics, though. When a loved-one dies, we are faced with difficult choices about how we manage the ceremonies around their death. We must decide the funeral rites, the commemorative ceremonies and the treatment of their earthly remains. The solemnity and importance of these acts is a common bond we share throughout this island, regardless of our religious affiliation or outlook. We take death seriously in Ireland.

Nowhere in this process should any grieving family have to even consider that their loved-ones remains will be picked over. It would be a scandal of the utmost order were we to discover mortuaries, funeral directors or anyone else were going through coffins and removing jewellery or any marketable items and selling them. That’s grave robbing in its purest form. Why is it any less scandalous that a crematorium would use a magnet and sieve essentially to do the same? It’s not. It’s a modern-day grave robbing dressed up as ethically-driven recycling.

When I die, I want to be cremated but it was my full expectation that all of my remains would be put into a container and given to my survivors: all of them, not just the bits that can’t be sold. Grieving families who receive a loved-ones ashes might assume, as I did, that the heat of the furnace would also turn the metals to dust and that everything there when they closed the coffin was still in the container of ashes, not that some was in a wheelie-bin at the crematorium. It’s not something I or indeed many families ever thought we’d have to think about.

This harks back to the 2012 revelations that the PSNI had retained body parts from 71 individuals whose deaths were either suspicious or part of a murder investigation. For families who’d already had to deal with the trauma of violent and sudden deaths, that news was shocking and painful. I don’t think this story is any less shocking as both hint at acts of desecration.

Belfast City Council needs to act swiftly and firstly issue an unreserved apology for failing to provide information to families that affords them the opportunity to give their informed consent. They need to critically examine the process by which this was allowed to happen and to continue for so long and to make sure such accountability mechanisms don’t fail in future.