Dead babies placed in coffins of unrelated adults until ’80s, HSE says

Scale of ‘tandem burial’ practice and how it developed unknown


The Health Service Executive (HSE)has said the practice of “tandem burials” in which the bodies of dead infants were placed in the coffins of unrelated adults was historical but that it did not know precisely the scale of the practice or how it developed in the first place.

However it accepted the practice was likely to have caused “much distress and upset for families both at that time and now”.

The HSE said from the limited information available, it understood that the practice of tandem burials ceased in the early 1980s.

It said it was important to note that the practice did not occur in HSE hospitals today.

The health authority said it was unclear why the practice of tandem burials had evolved.

“The scale of the practice is difficult to determine due to the changed landscape of all healthcare facilities, including maternity hospitals, from that time to today.”

“Furthermore, the record-keeping for such practices was not sufficiently comprehensive in order to allow a full picture in relation to the practice to be established.”

HSE director general Tony O’Brien briefed the Department of Health on the practice at the end of August. This followed enquiries made to the HSE over the summer by a family about deceased relatives.

Mr O’Brien said in a letter to then secretary general of the Department of Health Ambrose McLoughlin it was not certain that the families of both of the deceased babies and adults would always have been informed of the practice.

It occurred in “exceptional circumstances” in the case of a newborn baby who died in hospital and where the other options for burial, in a hospital or religious plot, “were not selected”.

The remains of the baby would then be placed in a coffin of a deceased adult.

The letter, which was obtained by RTÉ under the Freedom of Information Act said: “Our understanding is that the remains would have been placed with adult remains and that ideally the awareness and understanding of both families involved would have been sought, though this is not guaranteed.”

Mr O’Brien stated that the practice had been confirmed by current hospital staff, particularly mortuary staff, who were employed during the period in question.

Fianna Fail health spokesman Billy Kelleher said the revelations raised a number of questions about certain practices in hospitals.

“The information, while vague, will be very distressing for families who may have placed their faith in their local hospital to bury their loved one.”

“We need to establish what hospitals were carrying out this practice, how long did it go on for, and were family members of both deceased notified of the burial procedure. The HSE must be up-front and honest about these issues and ensure that adequate support measures are put in place for all of the families affected.”