Published inThe Guardian 29 January 2007
Christopher Blum was four months old when he died. His father found him in his bedroom, rigid and cold in his Babygro, his hands bunched up beside his face, a tear of blood dried around his nose. The pathologist told the parents that their son had died of cot death. They didn’t believe it, and they still don’t. Hours before his death, Christopher had been given a triple vaccination.
That was in June 1987. Since then, his body has been lying in a London mortuary, his tiny frame kept at -8C, wrapped in a package at the back of an adult-sized drawer that is rarely opened by staff, and marked “Baby Blum: Deceased.”
And there Christopher will stay until he is either buried or cremated. There is no sign of either. His parents refuse to register the death which would allow the funeral to take place.
The Blums simply do not wish their son’s death certificate to carry the words “sudden infant death syndrome”.
The child’s story came to light as part of a Guardian inquiry into the coroner’s service in England and Wales. Baby Blum’s case is very rare, but probably not unique. Nobody is to blame for his predicament. The case is, however, indicative of a service that is beset by problems; there is a lack of clarity over the law, the service is underfunded and under-resourced. So say the coroners at the heart of it. Tomorrow the government will publish plans for reforming a system that has changed little since Victorian times.
For Christopher’s parents, Steve and Mary, and others like them it has been inflexible and insensitive. They want to be heard, but feel they are not.
The £15-a-week cost of keeping their child’s body frozen in the mortuary at Hornsey coroner’s court is met by Haringey council – though it could demand that those costs of around £15,000 be paid by Mr Blum. The council could remove Christopher from the freezer and give him a parish funeral under the Public Health (Control of Disease Act) 1984. Mr Blum, 60, says that should the council begin such a process he would seek a court injunction to prevent it.
Council officials told the Guardian that they tried many times to contact Mr Blum with a view to burying his son, but could not locate him. The Guardian found him living at the address where Christopher died.
Sitting in the living room in the home in Edmonton, north London, that he shares with his eldest daughter, Jayne, 26, Mr Blum says he knows that by not registering his son’s death he is breaking the law. He cannot, he says, bring himself to sign a piece of paper that says his baby died from Sids. “I know it sounds horrendous not to bury him. It is horrendous, but whose fault is that? Why would they rather leave him there for another 20 years, rather than have an investigation?”
He believes there was a cover-up over the death and that crucial blood tests taken from the baby went missing. He is demanding that these be returned to him so he can prove that the vaccine was to blame. The Guardian understand the samples no longer exist.
His son, he says, was “a smashing kid” who was sitting up in his bouncy chair on the summer’s day that he died.
Then his mother took him to the North Middlesex hospital and he was sick immediately after he received his triple vaccination for whooping cough, polio and tetanus.
“He threw up straight away. They sorted that out and he came home. He was sort of lethargic. We put him to bed about seven or eight in the evening. I went to check him at about half past nine,” said Mr Blum.
“His fists were clenched up to the sides of his head and his face was down on the pillow. I picked him up and as soon as I did I knew something was wrong. He wasn’t floppy like a baby, he was rigid. There was blood coming out of his nose. I screamed and went running downstairs with him. My neighbour tried to give him the kiss of life and was pushing his chest. “We suspected the vaccine straight away.”
Mr Blum challenged the post-mortem results with the backing of Action for Victims of Medical Accidents, but the group no longer supports him. He has had three lawyers, but his legal aid has been stopped and he now has no representation.
He has demanded that an inquest be opened into the death. However, Dr Bill Dolman, the North London coroner, told the Guardian that will not happen. “I was not the coroner at the time of this infant’s death. I am just very distressed that this poor man has been living with strong feelings and worries which all the investigations and postmortems have not resolved. I do hope that things can be resolved, I just wonder if he just can’t face the tragic truth of the matter.
“Part of me says out of all humanity these things must be brought to closure, because no one can move on. At least if there’s a grave, he’s got somewhere to grieve.”
A Haringey Council spokesperson said: “We have made attempts over the years to resolve matters with the family via their solicitors, but there has been no response. As the Blums have still not registered the death, which would allow the funeral to take place, the baby has been kept in the mortuary.”
Mr Blum does not see how the case will be resolved. “I hope it won’t go on forever,” he said. “Of course I want to have him buried. If they release him now I’ll bury him, but I am not going to sign the register if it says cot death.”