Forgotten for 25 years: now the 1,000 infant bodies found after Alder Hey can be laid to rest

Stacked in columns 10 deep with just a numbered plaque to distinguish them, the bodies of 50 unknown babies were yesterday lowered into a single grave after lying forgotten in laboratory store rooms for at least 25 years.

Every Thursday for the next five months the brief and solemn ceremony that took place yesterday at a Liverpool cemetery will be repeated as the remains of 1,000 unborn infants, discovered during the scandal over organ retention at the city's Alder Hey hospital, are finally laid to rest.

The burials come five years after one of the grimmest chapters in the NHS first came to light with the discovery of the body parts of 850 children in the cellar of the Institute of Child Health at the University of Liverpool.

A subsequent inquiry into the retention of organs from babies and foetuses born at Alder Hey found that more than 100,000 body parts, many of them taken illegally, were being held in hospitals around Britain.

Yesterday, a group of mourners gathered at Allerton Cemetery in Liverpool as plain oak caskets containing one of the saddest legacies of the scandal - 50 of the 1,000 foetuses which were found in Liverpool without records or means of identification - were buried. Seven of the babies came from Alder Hey while the remainder, all found at the institute's building on the hospital site, came from hospitals throughout north-west England. All had died at least 25 years ago and some of the remains dated back to the 1950s.

Campaigners from Pity II, the group founded by parents whose babies had organs removed without their knowledge at Alder Hey, said they had felt obliged to adopt the forgotten infants.

Paula O'Leary, the group's co-founder, whose 11-month-old son Andrew died in 1981 and had organs retained, said she intended to attend all of the burials over the next 20 weeks. She said: "The moment I found out about these unidentified babies, it just broke my heart. I knew straightaway that we had to get them out of the hospital and into a cemetery, where they should have been in the first place.

"I will be here every week for as long as it takes, because someone has to be here for them."

Following a promise from Liverpool University and the hospital that the burials would be conducted with the "utmost dignity", each of the babies was dressed in a gown and covered with an embroidered blanket provided by Pity II.

The card sent with a display of flowers was from the University of Liverpool. It was the largest sent to the ceremony and read: "At peace now".

The 1,000 foetuses will be buried in a special plot at Allerton Cemetery set aside by Liverpool City Council which will eventually have a dedicated memorial.

Despite the publication in 2001 of the Donaldson report into the organs scandal, which said the policy of retention, often without parental permission, had been a nationwide problem, its effects are still being felt by the victims.

In March this year a High Court judge ruled that 1,300 families of children whose organs were taken without permission had suffered from negligence at NHS hospitals and could be entitled to compensation.

A large number of foetuses and body parts from the Alder Hey laboratories, which can be identified through medical records, have yet to be claimed by relatives.

Mrs O'Leary said she hoped the burials would encourage more parents to come forward. She said: "Lots of people are not aware that they kept actual babies, after miscarriages or still births. They have identified babies in there.

"These burials may well prompt parents who lost a child to come forward and check if their child was stolen. There is a lot more heartache to come."