Almost two tonnes of metal has been collected from the ashes of cremated bodies in Northern Ireland over the past four years as part of a recycling scheme without the knowledge of bereaved families.
Precious metals including jewellery, gold teeth and fillings, as well as metal hips and nails from coffins are routinely collected from Northern Ireland’s only crematorium in a process that began in 2010.
The materials are shipped to the Netherlands where a specialist company sorts the metals, with some being re-used in the construction of objects as diverse as road signs and aircraft engines.
But Belfast City Council, which is responsible for Roselawn Crematorium, told Belfast-based investigative news website The Detail it has not notified families despite over 11,000 cremations taking place since the recycling scheme began.
In a statement to The Detail, the council said: "It is not deemed necessary to provide this information and no family has ever requested it. However, we keep this under review." Industry guidelines recommend bereaved families are made aware of the recycling scheme.
The scheme’s aim is to protect the environment by recycling the metals with profits going to charity.
There is no suggestion of illegal or untoward conduct by Belfast City Council.
It has been argued that families would prefer not to know about the practicalities of disposing of human remains, though the subject does raise complex ethical issues.
Dr Heather Conway is a senior lecturer at Queen's University's School of Law and an expert on body disposal law and funeral disputes.
She said the council’s failure to inform families of the recycling scheme over the last four years raises a number of ethical concerns: “Because of the symbolic and emotional attachment that we have to our loved ones’ remains, this has the potential to be hugely upsetting for people.
“Industry practice guidelines state that people should be informed and there are clear ethical issues if bereaved relatives are not made aware that their loved ones’ remains may be subject to this process.”
The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) said it was not aware the scheme was operating in Belfast. It said the issue of family consent may now be raised at Stormont as part of an ongoing campaign to reform cremation forms in Northern Ireland.
The Dutch company behind the recycling scheme, Orthometals, said after processing costs are accounted for the remaining value of the metals collected is donated to charity, with the main aim being the promotion of recycling in the interests of environmental protection.
The process that follows the funeral and cremation is highly specialised, if largely unknown.
There have been over 11,000 cremations in Northern Ireland between 2010 and 2013.
Metals remaining after cremation are removed with tongs and a magnet and placed into a recycling container.
The metals collected include gold, silver and palladium, which is found in dental fillings, but the vast majority originates from metal hips, as well as nails, screws and ornaments - such as crosses - from coffins.
Orthometals said some material is sold for casting pieces in the aircraft, car and household industries.
More than £30,000 (€38,000) worth of metal has been collected from Belfast and donated to charity.
Crematoria are asked to select charities to be added to the list of beneficiaries, but Belfast City Council confirmed it had not selected a charity of its own to be added to the list.
In a statement to The Irish Times yesterday, a spokesman for Belfast City Council said that in line with recommended practice it was now reviewing how best to notify bereaved families in advance that it is part of this recycling scheme.
The council is also considering nominating one or more local charities to avail of the revenue realised through recycling, he said.
The Orthometals' recycling scheme has been used in a number of European countries for almost a decade with the company stating that it collects 250 tonnes of metal on an annual basis from hundreds of crematoria across Europe.
In the UK, Orthometals travels to over 150 crematoria once a year to collect the metal. Orthometals is also in the possession of the permit to collect and transport waste in the Republic of Ireland.
Jewellery to ashes Metal at 1,200 degrees
The advice from Dutch firm OrthoMetals, a company that recycles metals retrieved from cremated remains, is for people to remove jewellery from their loved ones before cremation.
The State’s four crematoriums: Glasnevin, Newland’s Cross, Mount Jerome and Island Crematorium, arrange to have metals recycled after cremation.
About 73 per cent of the metal is from nails, screws and other items from coffins; 27 per cent is from implants such as hips, precious metals make up about 0.1 per cent and about half of that is palladium, used in dental fillings.
During cremation, the precious metals melt, fragment and eventually mix with the remains as dust.
Although no one from Glasnevin was available to comment, its website says, “the cremation process will destroy [items of jewellery] and there will be no way to recover them afterwards”.
Mount Jerome said it informs people that residual metals are recycled and money received from the process is donated to Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross (€3,000 in 2014).
Frank Murphy, manager of Island Crematorium in Co Cork, said it has a contract with a local firm which recycles leftover metal.
The crematorium makes about two deliveries to the company a year. “It’s just a small amount of metal for each coffin extracted after each cremation.”
He said the metal has to be recycled. It can’t be buried because “it wouldn’t break down”.
He said relatives who request the pieces of metal can have them
and that he has never recovered gold fillings or jewellery.
“The heat is so intense [up to 1,200 degrees] that anything like that wouldn’t be possible to recover. They just break down and become dust.”