Michael Morgan, aged 51, of Liverpool, died at Eastbourne District General Hospital in December 2007. Nothing unusual there... people die in hospital all the time. However, within two weeks his body was cremated: without his family's knowledge. In fact no one had told them he was dead. So why, seven months later, does East Sussex NHS Trust, refuse to hand over Michael's ashes to his family? Has it got money to burn? TheBigRetort investigates
[Pictured above, Kim Hodgson, CEO of East Sussex Trust.]
First, a bit of backstory from Cousin John…
"My sister called and told me that our brother had bumped into a friend of Michael's in a Liverpool bank queue who claimed he had died and been cremated - 'three months ago in Eastbourne'."
Of course it was a huge shock... the family had not even been told that he was ill.
John, a freelance investigative reporter, decided to establish the facts before calling Michael's brother in Australia.
The announcement had been published by the Eastbourne Herald Group on the 14th December 2007. Significantly... nine day after Michael's death the decision had been taken to cremate him, and made no mention of his family.
The announcement also contained the name ‘Serenity’. However, based in Eastbourne, the funeral home would not confirm any more details; other than to acknowledge that Michael’s ashes had been awaiting collection: for nearly three months.
"Michael had died - with no notification to his family by the hospital – and had been cremated; his remains left sitting on a shelf in Eastbourne, for three months!"
"I was passed to the Bereavement Office at Eastbourne District General Hospital (DGH). Pat Jones, bereavement officer, seemed 'pleasant but surprised' by my call."
Ms Jones claimed to John that she had attempted to reach the family, which hails from Liverpool, but had assumed that they were untraceable. Jones appeared helpful but vague.
In fact, Jones, a bereavement officer attached to Eastbourne DGH, refused to divulge how Michael had died. (She claimed that this was ‘due to the Data Protection Act’, but the Act doesn't cover dead people.) Although Jones had a death certificate in front of her she suggested that John, with his family waiting for further news, should apply for the death certificate himself.
"Given the circumstances, this did seem rather odd. I mean, she had it in front of her, why couldn't she just tell me what it said?"
Why indeed? It may have saved the family further trauma. As it was Friday John had to wait before applying for the certificate and it took some time, which only added to the trauma.
Remarkably, whilst awaiting the death certificate - which took over a week to arrive - John was surprised to receive a letter from East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust. It was dated the 3rd March, and was from the 'patient Monies Officer'. It was, how shall we put it? Well, let's just say that tea and sympathy do not lay amongst the job spec of an East Sussex Hospital NHS Trust employee.
The letter stated: 'At the time of his death, we were unable to trace any family and therefore The Trust paid for the funeral which amounted to £1,091.88. We are trying to recover our costs in this respect and should the family wish to make a donation towards the funeral it would of course be gladly accepted.'
So, let's recap… Eastbourne District General Hospitals Trust failed to notify the family of Michael's death, cremated his body - he being Roman Catholic - and then sent the family a request for a donation towards costs; costs it may have avoided had it contacted the family in the first instance, and certainly before sending the body up in smoke.
Oh, and yes, East Sussex Trust further exacerbated what was surely a delicate matter by refusing to say what their patient had died of, which does seem remarkably callous. Instead it used the Data Protection Act as if it was the ace in a game of poker. But why?
Although Ms Jones would not divulge the cause of death herself she was kind enough to give John the name and number of a man who could. A friend of Michael's had liaised via the phone with the hospital whilst Michael was ill, and after the death had also forwarded a eulogy. "He was 'nominated' next-of-kin by the deceased on admission," Jones informed.
In fact John remembered the name. "Frank was a good friend of Michael's and had known him from his schooldays. It was hoped that he could - despite the Data protection Act - tell me the cause of Michael's death: and perhaps, why the family had been seemingly forgotten."
The only family member mentioned was Michael's who died in 1976. His brother in Australia and sister, nephews and nieces and cousins in Liverpool were not mentioned in Frank's eulogy.
"I draw to a close now by thanking the pastor for these words on my behalf... The staff as bereavement district general, serenity undertakers, nursing at eatbourne general too. GREER, OLSEN AND KARLSONN and BETTS families home and abroad. DAVID and Robbie again."
And these words could not possibly endear their author to any grieving family.
Frank was the same individual who had pulled John's brother out of that Liverpool bank queue and delivered the shocking news in what was just a chance encounter. "Mick's dead... He’s been cremated," he said.
His words were to reverberate from Liverpool to London and half way across the globe ‘down under’ to Australia where Michael's brother Eddie had been residing for ten years.
Frank became upset at talking about the death and felt that John should speak to his cousin, David, who actually lived in Estbourne and was there whilst Michael was ill and dying. (Frank had never visited the hospital himself, nor was he present at the service, or cremation.)
However - the number Frank gave John belonged not to his cousin, but his cousin's secretary. It was a mobile and it switched to answerphone. John left a message but when he never received a response he contacted Frank again.
"Frank did not actually like being questioned over the telephone he insisted that I conduct future communications by email."
All very mysterious. Unfortunately Frank only looked at his emails ‘from time to time’ and this did not help matters much.
We should stress that the following is not representative of any statement made by East Sussex Hospital NHS Trust, which still remains silent on the subject, and forms Frank's opinion only.
'...his voice was extremely gurgly. like he was drinking and talking at same time, I COULD HEAR IT ON HIS CHEST......" Frank wrote, often in the upper to lower case pattern. Apparently Frank phoned the hospital, 'EVERYDAY FOR THE MONTH HE WAS THERE.'
Although East Sussex Trust would not provide this or other information we now know Michael was hospitalised for a whole month. (During which is family was not contacted.)
Frank continued his email…
'...he did not want family to know,he named me as his next of kin and said I WASHIS COUSIN, for what reason I do not know , he was adamant no-one should know , I TRIED VERY HARD TO GET HIM to contact family , he refused point blank.TOTAL REFUSAL.'
So Michael named Frank as his next of kin… However, he did so, in his words, because 'he did not want his family to know' that he was ill. (Michael’s family had suffered a lot of tragedy in the past and it is likely that he was saving them from any pain.)
Frank was in constant contact by phone during the month Michael was in hospital and he also liaised with a 'personal nurse'.
"I TOLD HER HOW UNCOMFORTABLE I was that Michael insisted no contact with family....'YOU , must realise...,and anyone else I HOPE IS READING THIS, THAT "i" WAS SUDDENLY DROPPED IN A SITUATION , BY MICHAELS STUBBORNESS.......BUT, a dying man is not someone I would refuse a request...even if I did'nt agree with it. I tried coaxing names and adresses out of him over a few days , he wanted to be healthier before anyone was told , he was also embarrassed at no contact , probably some guilt too? The simple fact of rule here ,was , if a patient tells a SOCIL WORKER no contact , thats it , cant make him, cannot!"
‘Michael’s stubbornness’? ‘A dying man’? ‘He wanted to be healthier’? As John studied these statements he wondered if there was something that the hospital may have missed in its haste to have his cousin cremated. At least he had discovered that Michael was 'embarrassed' by no contact with his family, and felt 'some guilt too', and it was due to these reasons that he, personally, did not pick up the phone.
"I had been speaking to Michael's brother Eddie just before Christmas. Both of us were really annoyed that Michael had not made contact. Now we knew why," said John.
Unknown to the family, Michael, dying, was soon to be reduced to ashes.
But how could 'a dying man’ want ‘to be healthier’? It was frustrating trying to get to the bottom of Michael's story...
This, together with other comments in the emails, suggested that Michael did not know that he was in fact dying.
"Michael apparently had emphysema, a lung complaint. A lifetime heavy smoker, I used to nag him predicting his likely end. Apparently though, according to the emails, the diagnosis lasted ‘two to three months’ and was initially missed by his doctor – ‘these things happen’ (Frank said in his eulogy). However, when two tumours formed; one on his neck and the other near the brain, the end came quite quickly."
The above was not 'official'. It came via Frank. And then from his cousin David. Apparently he had encountered Michael in the street. Quite thin at the best of times, Michael had lost 2 stone in weight. David, with Frank 'over the telephone', coaxed him into hospital. But it was too late.
However John grew concerned by a statement that Frank made in his emails which suggested the family had been ignored entirely: 'I , REQUESTED michaels ashes NOT to be scattered and they are stored,IN MY NAME TO COLLECT.'
After John questioned Frank further about this and other statements, and about his and the hospital's failure to contact the family, the ashes left sitting on a shelf, Frank then became personally affronted and abusive in his emails.
Later John received phone calls from various organisations in Eastbourne; a hotel manager, a death registry office manager, a park's manager, all claiming to be in receipt of abusive 'notes' which carried his name and email address. It was, he says, 'most bizarre'. He forwarded the details to the police.
Frank finally wrote in his last email: 'Having sought and taken advice on that verbal monologue "of shite"Which you cringingly forwarded to other family members ,WHILST YOU HIDbehind distance.....Also , having contacted various depts in Eastbourne , including police , Ihave become aware of your actions , telephone diatrades , plus insults tostaff , quite a spiteful individual......I'll have a reply , though nothing of the length of yours...it's not overlyneeded , I BECAME AWARE , of your "other side " early on in E-MAILS...?I expected a "turn" and it came ....saw it quite early.You truly get carried away don't you ? you should be carried away ,literally , and sedated....' He went on to say something that disturbed John greatly, 'You appear not very polite to staff in eastbourne , all woman too ?vI am advised to advise you , never to contact me again.'
Someone at the hospital had divulged John's private conversations. In fact, it was only following a later reply from East Sussex Trust that he accepts he may have been 'determined' and 'not very polite'- but to Kim Hodgson only. Ms Jones, speaking with Eddie who later called from Australia, did say John was 'difficult', and so he believes the statement is linked back to Jones - 'full circle'.
But 'difficult'? If a probing mind can be termed 'difficult' then John the investigator was certainly that.
"Someone tells you that your loved one died - three months ago - refuses to say how, cremates them, doesn't notify you, then asks for a 'donation' - how would you be?"
However, not only had Frank closed the door on further discussion, he had confirmed a nagging suspicion in John's mind: the hospital was not being entirely helpful. Could it have been hiding something he wondered.
Although Frank claims that he had placed an advert in the Liverpool Echo - 'in 2 separate nights' - he also claims that he placed Michael's details in the Catholic Parish letter 'sick list', which had been delivered to 7,500 addresses in Liverpool. 'Anyone read in the family.....?' he asked mockingly. Apparently not the Liverpool Echo death list, or the Catholic Parish Letter.
In addition, Frank claims that Michael phoned him on 5 separate occasions from a call box downstairs in the hospital foyer; 'The last time at 3.30 approx, the day before he died.' He said Michael was 'content and talkative'. On the other hand...
Pat Jones, bereavment officer, said to Eddie in his call to her that... towards the end Michael could only communicate by writing.
Following Frank's request, John stopped liaising with him and decided to wait for the death certificate instead; at least it would be 'official'. (When it finally arrived it recorded that the cause of death was (a) Cardiorespiratory Arrest and (b) Anaplastic Carcinoma Nasophoghy with Extension to Middle Cranial Fossa.)
Fortunately there is, as they say, more colour to the story…
With the stance taken by Frank, John quickly found himself caught between a bureaucracy guarding its secrets and a friend of Michael's, who had passed himself off as a distant cousin, and who seemed annoyed by every question.
After approximately three weeks of emails to the East Sussex Hospitals Trust for the answers to various questions, John made a subject access request under the Freedom of Information Act. Kim Hodgson, chief executive, responded:
'I should advise you that the information requested comes under the Data Protection Act and we are therefore unable to disclose this information as you are not the designated next of kin.'
Not the 'designated' next of kin? John was surprised. He was representing Michael’s brother. He was also Michael's first cousin.
Coincidentally Hodgson’s letter followed a request for a breakdown of funeral costs. Apparently these differed from those given by the funeral home: in fact the hospital costs were almost double. Of course there may have been a perfectly reasonable explanation... but John was not to hear any. The Trust remained resolutely silent on this and other issues.
John also wanted to know if any official had received any remuneration for Michael's cremation.
Such payments are not illegal and are euphemistically known as 'ash cash'. John was concerned that the ash-cash system may have acted as a disincentive to find the true next of kin. (If Michael had left a will this in fact would have been the normal procedure.)
In fact, although Pat Jones would not tell John what it said on the death certificate he was surprised to see her name recorded as informant on it; and her job description that was given as 'causing the body to be cremated'.
"I also wanted to know, following past events at other hospitals across England and Waled, whether any body parts had been 'taken'."
East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust instead hid behind the Data Protection Act and Michael's friend Frank, whom they appeared to elevate to a position that usurped the family's. It did so by not only using Frank, but by employing an Act that does not cover dead people, and its behavior is, undoubtedly, suspect. Why if the family was not 'designated' did it receive that request for a donation?
Although the hospital refused to respond in writing it did issue assurances (via the phone) with regards to the body parts. "We don’t do that," Ms Jones said affronted. However, given the East Sussex NHS Trust’s readiness to employ the Data Protections Act as and when it suited, may we have that in writing p-l-e-a-s-e?
The silence that followed was deafening and yet it spoke volumes...
Although CEO Kim Hodgson refused to answer the above questions - due to the Data Protection Act - (the Act as stated previously that does not cover dead people) the request for information on the Trust's attempts (?) to find Michael's family is worthy of note... there wasn't any. If there was then the information about the search for the family is the family's information. So why not release it?
In addition, the rights of a person deputised to look after the rights and needs of a living patient do not override those of the deceased's family. So why the current stance?
Well, John did tell the hospital that the family was going to have the ashes tested. Could this be why they refused to hand them over?
"It's anyone, if not all of several possibilities," John and Eddie concluded. "But in truth we are grasping in the dark with sunglasses on."
But how did the East Sussex NHS Trust allow the matter to descend into what now seems like a legal and moral nightmare?
Pat Jones of the Bereavement Office claimed that Michael, with a tumour pressing against his brain, was living 'in squalor'.
Most of his belongings were eventually placed in a skip by the council, including family photographs stretching back generations. (Frank told John that he may be in possession of some items. He had also applied for a deposit that Michael had placed on his flat but without any luck.)
East Sussex NHS Trust, not quick to see the contradiction, wrote, 'The hospital does hold a mobile phone, a pocket watch, a passport and a birth certificate... which we would be pleased to release to a family member.' [Emphasis added.]
A CASE OF NOW YOU AINT NOW YOU ARE... AND NOW YOU AINT AGAIN.
True to form, along with the ashes, the East Sussex NHS Trust ignores requests to hand over even these items. Ironically though they may have led the hospital to Michael's family. Evidence then that nothing was done?
Instead, Pat Jones, bereavement officer, the one who was charged with 'causing the body to be cremated', claimed that she had attempted to contact the family via the Merseyside Police. However, this has little resonance. With its modus operandus of conveniently dodging the 'awkward' questions, the East Sussex Trust has a few question marks over its bereavment management, and its morals.
"Our family is still in Toxteth,' Eddie said. 'It's not that hard to find us... And if they did try to find us why don't they prove it? Instead they are now saying that we can't have my brother's ashes. It's disgusting."
In order to confirm the claim made by the hospital, John also requested evidence that Michael filled in a box on admission with the name of his 'telephone friend'. However, East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust steadfastly refuses to produce it.
John thinks he understands why... When I initially spoke with the hospital they said that the box was 'empty'."
Whatever the truth, East Sussex Trust's (silent) refusal to release Michael's ashes in order that they may be buried alongside his mother in Liverpool ensures that the "Eastbourne Scandal" will remain for some time a topic of some discussion; certainly in Michael's hometown of Liverpool.
Unfortunately requests for the release of Michael’s ashest continue to go ignored; and they, if indeed 'they' are his, still sit on a shelf at Serenity, the Eastbourne funeral home. Additionally, further requests to the Trust's media office have been referred back to CEO Kim Hodgson's response, and so the stable doors are firmly closed on the family. But not quite...
"Michael must be returned to Liverpool and laid to rest with his mother. We as a family - wherever we live - are determined. Liverpool was his birthplace. He always thought of himself as a son of Liverpool... And Liverpool will be his resting place," John states.
Ironically Kim Hodgson is herself a strange nemesis... Probably one of the most photogenic CEOs in the United Kingdom, in 2006 her dog, a rare Weimaraner-cross puppy called Blue, was held to ransom. The crooks demanded £2,000. Hodgson slammed the police investigation into the theft for ‘not progressing quickly enough'. Then aged 39, Hodgson, who was given the top job at East Sussex under some controversy, said: "When I phoned the police they didn't take it that seriously. They said 'it's just a dog' to my face. She's not just a dog to me.... If it was a child I am sure they would trace it quicker than this. In some ways," Hodgson told The Argus (and this is a cracker), "if Blue was dead it would be better, that's because I would have closure."
What does John say?
"If Kim found closure in any sense we do not know. But the parallels - and the hypocrisy - cannot possibly go without comment: it is 'closure' that we - Michael's family - seek too."
Perhaps if Michael had been a ‘rare breed’ then Hodgson may have been able to empathise. Who knows?
"Heads or tails, cuz?" Michael used to say to John.
Michael Morgan was born in 1956 in Liverpool (where he often made his family and friends laugh), and he died at Eastbourne DGH in December 2007. Formerly a merchant seaman he loved the sea, and the River Mersey. He was a ‘rare breed’ and will be sadly missed.
If you would like to sign TheBigRetort condolence book with thoughts or comments then please do. If you have had a similar experience at the hands of the Eastbourne DGH or the East Sussex Trust, or know (or have known) any of the persons involved in this report, then please get in touch (in the strictest confidence).