The inquest into the death of the remaining “Moors Murderer”, Ian Brady, commenced on 16 May 2017, and the BBC reported that his ashes would not to be scattered at Saddleworth Moor, the burial place of many of their victims. Senior coroner Christopher Sumner is reported as saying that “he knew he did not have the legal power to make such a request but believed it was the ‘correct moral judgement'”.
Ian Brady (a.k.a. Ian Stewart-Brady) and Myra Hindley became known as the “Moors Murderers” and in 1966 were given sentences of life imprisonment for the killing of John Kilbride, aged 12, Lesley Ann Downey, 10, and Edward Evans, 17. In 1985, Brady also admitted to the murders of Pauline Reade, 16, and Keith Bennett, who was 12, although he was never prosecuted for their deaths. Hindley died in West Suffolk hospital on 15 November 2002 and on Monday, 15 May 2917, Brady died in Ashworth Hospital; both were still serving their sentence.
Brady’s inquest at Southport Town Hall
Whilst media headlines focussed on the disposal of Brady’s ashes, Senior Coroner Christopher Sumner requested assurances on three issues, further to a request to release his body:
- the person who asked to take over responsibility for that funeral has a funeral director willing to deal with the funeral;
- he has a crematorium willing and able to cremate Mr Stewart-Brady’s body; and
- when Mr Stewart-Brady is cremated his ashes will not be scattered on Saddleworth Moor.
There were no relatives of the serial killer known to the court: his body was identified by the manager of Ashworth Hospital, Michelle Anderton; and Brady’s lawyer Robin Makin, the executor of his will, visited him in the hours before his death to discuss his legal wishes and funeral arrangements.
Restrictions on the scattering of ashes
The treatment of a body prior to its final disposal is subject to a quasi-hierarchy of rights, based upon its ‘custody and possession’. This was summarized by Kennedy and Grubb (Kennedy, I and A Grubb (1989), Medical Law Text and Materials. London: Butterworths. 10) as:
“‘the person who has actual physical custody of the body has lawful possession (and the duty of disposal) of it until someone with a higher right (e.g. an executor or parent) claims the body … In the absence of the executors there is a common law duty to see that the body is buried and the person lawfully in possession is normally the occupier of the premises where the body lies, or the person who has the body”.
In practice, this operates as follows:
- The prison hospital initially had the right to detain a body if it ideemed that the body may be infectious, or if someone has died from a notifiable disease;
- The coroner then has first right to take possession of the body. This is a right to take temporary possession, in order to determine the cause of death;
- Once the coroner has completed their examination, the body will be released;
- If there is a will, the person entitled to possession is the named executor (whether a family member or not);
- If there is no will, it is the person who has priority on intestacy (under rule 22 of the Non-Contentious Probate Rules).
Consequently, at the conclusion of the inquest, Brady’s body will be released by the coroner to the named executor who has the duty of making the arrangements for the cremation and disposal of ashes. In 2006, Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:
“Whether they will clarify the law in respect of those wishing to scatter the ashes of deceased loved ones in public places, in response to the article in the Edge magazine published in July by the Economic and Social Research Council indicating that the law was unclear”. [HL7476]
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker) said:
“The Environment Agency provides guidance on places where the spreading of human cremation ashes should be avoided and can also advise anyone wishing to spread ashes on a river so that they do so with minimum environmental impact. Local authorities can advise people considering the spreading of human ashes elsewhere. The Environment Agency can be contacted via its national customer contact centre”.
The situation is little different now, and in normal circumstances, there are few restrictions on the scattering of ashes, although scattering on private land requires the landowner’s permission. Saddleworth moor is in the Dark Peak of the Peak District National Park, and in addition to private land interests is subject to the oversight of the Peak District National Park Authority. However, in practice it would be unrealistic to expect either to police the disposal of ashes.
The coroner’s requirements should be viewed in the context of the events surrounding the burial of Hindley. In a piece entitled Funeral pariah, The Guardian explains:
“[It was not known] which firm of funeral directors was charged with driving Hindley’s body the short distance to the crematorium from the hospital where she died. That information was deemed so sensitive only a handful of senior prison service and Home Office officials were privy to it”.
“… the prison service, perhaps mindful that it might have a difficult task on its hands, had started contacting funeral companies a year ago”.
“…the firm had to be hired by an increasingly desperate prison service from a location some 200 miles away and ‘somewhere in the north’, after 20 funeral directors in the Bury St Edmunds area, where she died, had declined to handle the ceremony.”
As then, its was likely that public emotions would be running high, particularly in view of Brady’s continuing refusal to reveal the location of the grave of one of his victims, Keith Bennett. The Daily Telegraph reported:
“It emerged on Tuesday that officers had attempted to secure deathbed information from terminally-ill Brady, who had never revealed where he and Myra Hindley buried 12-year-old Keith. But he is said to have refused to disclose the location of the grave in his final hours”.
With regard to the requirement that Brady’s ashes were not to be scattered on Saddleworth Moor, the Senior Coroner said he knew he did not have the legal power to make such a request (but believed it was the “correct moral judgement”). However, it could be argued that this was one of three of his requirements, the combined effect of which was to ensure the lawful and decent disposal of his remains, based upon the earlier experience in relation to Myra Hindley. In this respect, he was working within his vires.
Tuesday’s eight-minute hearing was attended by 12 members of the press; the inquest was adjourned until 29 June.
The Guardian has reported that on the afternoon of 17 May 2017, there was “a hastily convened second hearing of the inquest into the 79-year-old murderer’s death”, at which coroner’s officer Alby Howard-Murphy reported he had spoken to Robert Makin, Brady’ solicitor, who “was unhappy with the comments made in the first hearing about the disposal of Brady’s ashes”. Makin said the suggestion that there was a plan to scatter them on Saddleworth Moor was untrue and there was “no likelihood” of this happening.
Michael Armstrong, counsel for Merseyside police, asked for the release of Brady’s body to be delayed in order to guarantee its safety, and the coroner agreed to delay the release for almost 24 hours to allow the police time to make arrangements with Makin. It was decided that Brady’s body would be released to Makin, the executor of his will, at 2pm on Thursday. The inquest was told the body would be guarded by police until then.
Despite Makin’s request that the inquest be concluded on Wednesday, as a post mortem showed that Brady died of natural causes, the coroner insisted he would deal with the inquest in a “full, frank and fearless manner”. Brady’s will is likely to remain private unless it was submitted to probate.
In an echo of events following the death of Myra Hindley, funeral directors in the Sefton area indicated they had not been approached to deal with Brady’s body, but that they would be reluctant to do so for fear of the effects it would have on their business.