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.

  • chrisjones2

    When you die there is waste left behind.Gold and metals don’t evaporate. What do you want the Council to do? Leave them in the urn for the family to sift through?Hand them back in plastic bag?

    This is shroud waving of the worst kind If people want to close their eyes to what happens that is fine but the reality is this stuff has to go somewhere and this may be the best option

  • patriciamacb

    Not being a scientist, I wouldn’t know that there are different temperatures and if I’d been recently bereaved, I shouldn’t be expected to remember to ask.

  • Actually, yes, they should be left in the urn, and interred with the ashes. Perhaps advice to Funeral Directors who would be able to advise those families who might intend to scatter ashes that jewellery etc should not be placed in the coffin. None of that is too hard. It shows respect, and offers dignity. Don’t bother listening too often to Talkback or Nolan anymore, but never surprised when stories arise such as this. Surely someone in the Council might just have *thought* this through when signing the contracts, you might think. Clearly not.

  • chrisjones2

    I can understated the Councils problem The Cremation is booked by the undertakers not them so they have no direct contact with the customer

    Do you then confront the bereaved with the position that ‘bits’ will be left. Cue complaints. Just put it in the small print.Cue Complaints

    Do you tell them that pacemakers (for example) will be cut out before the cremation because they contain radioactive material? Cue complaints about cutting them out and / or not cutting them out

    The reality is that cremation doesn’t totally destroy the body and cant destroy bits like hip joints that are designed to survive for 30 years.In the last 30 years this cult has grown up that even forensic samples must be handed back to the family or can only be held with their consent. Why? This obsession with posession of the body is ghoulish

  • Neil

    Agreed. People basically had 2 choices (they just didn’t know it). Either inter the wedding rings etc., and have them removed to be processed at a 20% fee and thereafter to be donated to some unspecified charity, or to take the rings and donate them to a specified, chosen charity themselves, without losing commission (or keep them). I can’t imagine too many informed people would choose the former option.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    Well it might not be up there with Burke and Hare or higher up when valuables were taken of the Jews before / after they were cremated in concentration camps but at the very least family’s should have been told that containers full of loved ones bits and pieces was being sent to holland to be melted down and the odd profit was going to keep a few homeless fed and off the streets in Amsterdam –

    Wonder how many containers were sent to holland and were they worth their weight in gold-

  • chrisjones2

    What about the rest….how do you put a hip joint or steel rod or spinal metalwork in an urn?

  • Good point, but not one that should be beyond the wit of someone with a modicum of competency and a degree of sensitivity to address, competently and sensitively.

  • Jag

    If you want to truly investigate grave robbing, compare the cost of cremation in Belfast and Dublin, around €500 in Belfast versus €1,700 in Dublin (though the cost has been increasing by double digit percents in Belfast in recent years).

    What ever happened to the proposed new crematorium in Moira?

  • Neil

    Yes I can see your point on that front. I’m fixated on the precious metals.

  • carl marks

    I might be wrong but if a person get a second hip transplant the metal removed (titanium) i think is kept by and is the property of the NHS for recycling as it does have a value, now if this is the case(and i am open to correction) then surely any such materials recovered should go to the cash strapped NHS, and gold or such like belongs to the family!

  • NMS

    Carl, what if you went private? I really see nothing wrong with the approach taken by the Council. Can you imagine the reaction if auntie’s ashes started to rattle when they were moved because most of what was in the urn was the metal from her two hip jobs. I am surprised that this was not kept for the silly season. I suppose it is Mí na Marbh!

  • carl marks

    Maybe your right, but somebody is making money from Auntie, might as well be the NHS, and i didn’t suggest we leave the metal work in the urn, but Jewellry at least should be returned to the family.