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Page last updated at 01:36 GMT, Sunday, 15 March 2009

Precious metal 'sold' after cremation

By Phil Kemp
Jonathan Maitland show, BBC Radio 5 Live

Coffin ready to go in furnace
As a precious metals refiner, Leon Toffel is used to dealing with fine dust, perhaps produced at a bench by a dental technician.

But some years ago, when he received globules of molten metal in the post, he realised there was a new market to be mined.

Toffel's new client was a retiring crematorium worker.

"We processed it like any other scrap," he told 5 Live.

"Obviously he'd recommended us to his friends and operatives because over the years we get material like that sent to us."

When people retire, that's a classic time when they pass on stuff. It's like a little pension pay-out
Leon Toffel, precious metals refiner

Leon Toffel estimates that five per cent of his business comes from sources in crematoria.

He has paid up to 300 a time for the metal.

"When people retire, that's a classic time when they pass on stuff," he said. "To a certain extent, it's like a little pension pay-out."

Nails and pins from the coffin as well as prosthetic hips and other joints survive the furnace after a body is cremated.

Gold teeth

This metal is separated from the ashes and has traditionally been buried in a dedicated plot on site or, more recently, has been collected for recycling.

Some crematorium workers who spoke to the Jonathan Maitland programme said that, although there was not much of it, it would be possible to retrieve some precious metal in a dull and misshapen form after cremation.

Metals in a recycling bin
Metals are left in the ashes in this case, it is the coffin nails and handles.
Mr Toffel said he has received gold teeth and items of jewellery.

"If I was being approached every other day from crematorium managers or operatives, and getting a very high amount, basic decency would force me to get on to the council and say do you realise this is happening," Mr Toffel said, when challenged about the ethics of the trade.

"We are not that hard up that we need to be involved in any high-scale skulduggery."

Mr Toffel might only be talking about relatively small sums of money but a much larger case in Germany has led to the conviction of six crematorium workers for desecrating graves.

"It was a very big story - it was even treated like a national scandal," said Tobias Rudolph, who is a defence lawyer on the case.

Bins where residue metals are put ready for recycling
In some crematoria, metals left behind after cremation are put into bins, ready for recycling.
In just two years, the six workers at a crematorium in Nuremberg earned more than 100,000 by selling gold teeth to a local jeweller.

Under German law, they could not be charged with theft because the gold was not said to belong to anyone after the process of cremation.

For some, the story raised painful associations with the holocaust.

"It was treated like a taboo topic and of course especially in Nuremberg - which was a famous city in the Second World War - the people are very sensitive to these kinds of topic."

Recycling scheme

Around a half of all crematoria in Britain are now participating in a recycling scheme, promoted by the trade body, the Institute for Cemetery and Crematorium Management.

Any metal that remains after the cremation, is sorted into wheelie bins and collected twice a year.

A machine called a cremulator grinds down any residual bone and separates metal remains for disposal.

Proceeds from the recycling are donated to charity, with more than 100,000 having been paid since the scheme's inception.

The Institute said it "would call on all cremation authorities and their senior managers to monitor the disposal of metals resulting from cremation.

"Ideally, and hopefully, all UK crematoria will eventually join the scheme thereby giving an accountable route for all metals recovered from cremation with the full knowledge that they have given the bereaved full information and have gained their individual consent."

This story will be broadcast on the Jonathan Maitland show on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday 15 March 2009 at 1900 GMT. Download the free podcast.

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