Richard kept wife Rita's ashes on the mantelpiece – until police told him they weren't hers. Inside the shocking Yorkshire funeral home scandal

A short time ago, Richard Shaw made a journey that was both brief and bittersweet. Travelling from his home in the Yorkshire village of Woodmansey to the nearby city of Hull, he set out to collect the ashes of his beloved wife Rita.

Described by those who knew her as a positive, ever-smiling woman, the kind who would ‘give you her last penny’, Rita, 70, died in October last year, just 12 weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Bus driver Richard, also 70, whose life as a bachelor had been turned upside down in the most wonderful of ways by his 2009 marriage to Rita, was bereft.

But the agony of loss has only been exacerbated by the events that have unfolded since. For the fact is that Richard thought he had been given his late wife’s ashes back in December. He had even placed them in an urn, which he then positioned in pride of place on the mantelpiece of his front room.

Richard Shaw with his wife Rita, who died last October after being diagnosed with lung cancer

Richard thought he had been given his late wife¿s ashes in December and placed them in an urn

Richard thought he had been given his late wife’s ashes in December and placed them in an urn

But everything he understood about what had happened after Rita’s death has been thrown into disarray.

Why? Because in March this year, police descended on three branches of Legacy Independent Funeral Directors, in Hull and Beverley, after concerns were raised about the storing and management of the deceased.

Police would later announce that 35 bodies — as opposed to the three or four that one might normally expect — had been found at Legacy’s Hessle Road branch, along with a ‘quantity of ashes’.

And while the relatives of those 35 were contacted and given the devastating news that their loved ones — whose funerals had in some cases been held weeks, even months, earlier — were still at the premises, it is only now that details of the ‘quantity of ashes’ has been revealed.

In a horrifying development, heaping further pain upon the bereaved, Humberside Police disclosed that they had identified an astonishing 163 families linked to ashes.

As one grieving relative tells the Mail this week, it’s quite a leap from a ‘quantity of ashes’ to 163.

Rita Shaw is one of that number and the reason Richard found himself making that agonising journey to a cemetery in Hull two weeks ago when the ashes were finally released.

Sitting in a living room brimming with photographs of his late wife, he reminisces fondly about the whirlwind way she transformed his life.

The couple met because his bus route took him to the day centre where she worked; when he finally kissed her she declared she had been ‘waiting for that for a long time’.

This year police descended on three branches of Legacy Independent Funeral Directors, in Hull and Beverley, after concerns were raised about the storing of the deceased

This year police descended on three branches of Legacy Independent Funeral Directors, in Hull and Beverley, after concerns were raised about the storing of the deceased

Humberside Police identified 163 families linked to ashes found at one of the branches. Rita's remains were included in this

Humberside Police identified 163 families linked to ashes found at one of the branches. Rita’s remains were included in this

Richard found himself making an agonising journey to a cemetery in Hull two weeks ago when his wife's ashes were finally released

Richard found himself making an agonising journey to a cemetery in Hull two weeks ago when his wife’s ashes were finally released

But it was Rita who swept Richard off his feet. Literally.

‘We got married in Hull Register Office on December 5, 2009.

‘I had never been abroad, but I went up in a little aeroplane for the first time for my birthday in June. I didn’t like the take-off or landing but could not believe the view when you are up in the sky.’

Soon the pair were jetting off to Italy and more global travels followed: ‘We enjoyed life,’ says Richard, proudly. He draws solace from his memories, now that his beloved wife has gone.

The couple had already agreed they would reduce their joint funeral plans to a basic package with Legacy, no service, just a cremation.

Save for sorrow and some frustration at a two-month delay in receiving his wife’s ashes — in a white shoebox, with a sticker bearing her name — that might have been the end of things.

Richard was still lost in a sea of grief when a neighbour knocked on his door in March to ask if he had heard about events unfolding at Legacy. From grief he was catapulted into a new anxiety: what if the ashes he had been given weren’t Rita’s?

He registered his concern with a helpline set up for families and on Good Friday police rang him and said: ‘We have got your wife’s ashes.’

Richard thought his wife had been cremated in Hull, but police told him, although the ashes had been found in a Hull Crematorium box, his wife had actually been cremated at Cottingley Crematorium in Leeds, and not in October, but in January.

T he agony wasn’t over; the ashes were kept as police evidence and only released to Richard from Hull’s Eastern Cemetery two weeks ago.

‘I rang Victim Support and they gave me a time slot at 10am to collect them,’ says Richard. ‘I was the third one to get the ashes back.’

Richard, who volunteers as a driver picking up blood samples and medical records and still does a once-a-week council bus run for a school for the disabled, tenderly placed the box on the back seat of his car and drove home, where equally tenderly he picked up the urn that had sat on his mantelpiece since December.

The cremation process means there is no reliable DNA to link families to the ashes and the mistakes that have been uncovered by police have been achieved through meticulous trawling of paperwork, so in many cases there is no way of ‘reuniting’ the wrong ashes with their actual relatives. Hence, Richard gently emptied the urn of the original ashes he was given last year and spread them around the rose tree in the back garden.

‘I said, “I don’t know who you are but I have laid you to rest.”’

He then turned to the task of refilling the urn with the ashes that he now must believe are his wife’s. Any alternative is too painful to contemplate.

Peter Welburn, 73, was given ashes after the death of his wife Shirley, 72, last year, only to discover her body was still in the Legacy mortuary when he was presented with them

Peter Welburn, 73, was given ashes after the death of his wife Shirley, 72, last year, only to discover her body was still in the Legacy mortuary when he was presented with them

‘At least I have got ashes. Some people have got nothing back. I cared for the other ashes thinking they were Rita’s, so I feel for the other family who are also victims. God knows how many more are out there.’

These sentiments are particularly poignant for Peter Welburn, 73, who was given ashes after the death of his wife Shirley, 72, in December last year, only to discover her body was still in the Legacy mortuary when he was presented with them.

Like Richard, he mourns for the woman who was by his side for 50 years and with whom he had four children.

Shirley’s funeral was carefully planned; a cherished wedding photograph put on top of her coffin as it was sent for cremation.

Last Christmas, Shirley’s ashes, or what Peter, a retired trawlerman, thought were her ashes, sat by the Christmas tree so it would feel like she was with her family.

When the scandal erupted in March, Peter became concerned because he had never received a cremation certificate. Now he knows Shirley was in fact not cremated until January 16.

The original ashes he had been given were collected by police. ‘I said, “I don’t want them they are not mine, they could be anybody’s.” So, I have got an urn with no one in it.’

Peter had already faced the sorrow of losing both a son and a daughter before his wife’s death and now his anguish is laced with anxiety.

‘He [Legacy’s owner] did my daughter’s funeral, so now I am beginning to wonder if she was in there, that was eight years ago. I have got the ashes there, but I don’t think I got any paperwork then.’

His heartfelt wish is to have his wife’s remains returned to him, so he can place her with her children.

If only the experiences of Richard and Peter were isolated.

Grandmother Jessie Stockdale died in 2023 but was not cremated

Grandmother Jessie Stockdale died in 2023 but was not cremated

They are not. In May, Tristan Essex, 24, had the unusual and painful experience of organising his late grandmother Jessie Stockdale’s second funeral.

Jessie, 89, died in October 2023 — her family attending a funeral and receiving a box of ashes that grandson Tristan took back to their shared two-bedroom home and placed fondly by the fireplace.

Tristan, who cared for the woman he called ‘Nana’ for the seven years until her death, had no experience of organising funerals and, with precious little money to spare, did so on a shoestring.

To say, then, that he was horrified to learn her body was numbered among the 35 found at Legacy’s Hessle Road funeral parlour in March is an understatement.

‘It felt like my heart had dropped into my stomach,’ is how he describes the call from police to tell him what they had found.

It was weeks later that DNA testing confirmed Jessie’s identity, although Tristan’s faith in the whole agonising process has been so shattered, he still has doubts.

Jessie’s second funeral, in May, was held at Hull Minster, where the Reverend Canon Dr Dominic Black told the 50-strong congregation: ‘This is one of the most bizarre funerals I have ever had to do.’

Tristan chose to watch his grandmother’s coffin as it made its final journey to cremation and her ashes were hand-delivered the next day.

One day, if he ever feels more certain of the contents of the new urn, he plans to take his nana’s ashes to Barcelona and scatter them in the same place as his late grandfather, Maurice.

For now, he still feels ‘numb’. ‘I feel comfort in knowing I can speak to someone in the same situation as me, but then it angers me to know there is not just one victim, there are hundreds.

‘What has happened has tainted every memory [of my grandmother]. Every time I think about my nana, it’s Legacy that comes into my mind. I can’t mourn because I can’t process everything, all I can think about is Legacy and what happened there. ‘

Last week, Assistant Chief Constable Thom McLoughlin said police had begun visiting the 163 families now identified as being associated with ashes found.

He said: ‘Some families may want to receive the ashes, and others may not. There is no right or wrong answer and the impact and affect it will have will differ for each individual family, but it should not be underestimated, and we will do all we can to support those throughout what is an incredibly difficult time.’

As for Legacy, in May, at a hearing in Hull, District Judge Robert Thomson ordered the funeral directors be wound up after it emerged the firm owed the local authority more than £40,000 and a further £5,000 in utility bills. The police investigation continues.

Last Wednesday, a 54-year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of money laundering offences. A 46-year-old man, who was arrested earlier this year, was also taken into custody on suspicion of theft and making or supplying articles for use in fraud. Both have since been bailed.

The man and a 23-year-old woman, who remains on bail, were arrested in March on suspicion of prevention of a lawful and decent burial, fraud by false representation and fraud by abuse of position.

How terribly ironic the name Legacy is as those who sought the solace of its service continue to grieve and grapple with the enormity of what has happened and each new development. As Richard Shaw says: ‘You are trying to get over someone passing away, then every episode brings it all back. It is like going through the death again. It is torture.’

But he wants people to know; he thinks it’s important. He wants regulation in the funeral industry, to ensure that funeral services are inspected and held to account, to ‘make sure people are buried in the right coffins.’ 

  • If you have concerns, call Victim Support’s 24-hour independent helpline on 0808 281 1136.

Fuente