My 42-year fight to prove they took my dead son and buried an empty coffin

Emma Cowing
9 min readNov 3, 2017


The harrowing and deeply moving story of a mother’s resolve to uncover the truth about her baby’s death

This article was originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on 9 September, 2017

By Emma Cowing

ON a warm summer’s day in July 1975, Lydia Reid walked across a quiet Edinburgh graveyard to bury her son. Little Gary Paton, just seven days old, had died following an operation at the Sick Children’s hospital and his devastated mother was determined to give him a proper funeral.

Yet now, cradling the tiny white coffin in her arms, Lydia knew something was wrong.

‘The coffin felt too light. It felt empty. I was so confused,’ she says. ‘I thought “Is this my son? Is it not my son? Is it empty? Is it full?” I was in shock. Nothing felt real.’

Family members said she was being irrational. Doctors told her she had post-natal depression. Yet, for 42 years, Lydia remained convinced that instead of burying her son that day, she had buried an empty coffin.

It has been a long and lonely road. For years Lydia was denied the right to exhume the grave, and was refused financial help.

Finally, earlier this year and with the help of the Scottish Government and her local MSP, she won a court order to have the grave exhumed by respected anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black.

And so, one morning in August, Lydia sat by Gary’s grave in Saughton cemetery and watched his coffin being unearthed.

‘I wanted to be right there. I wanted to see. I wanted to be wrong, quite frankly. I wanted somebody to tell me I was stupid, that I’d been exaggerating all these years.

‘But in your heart of hearts you know. And so when Sue lifted out the shawl, I knew right away. It was empty. There was nothing there.’

Inside the coffin was a shawl which Lydia’s mother had had crocheted for Gary, a hat that didn’t belong to him, a cross and a wristband.

There were no remains, and no signs of decomposition. No body had ever been placed in the coffin. Just a final insult: the little boy’s name spelt wrongly on a plaque on top of the coffin as ‘Garry’, instead of Gary.

For Lydia, 68, there was no vindication of her maternal instinct — only fresh grief, and anger.

‘It is absolutely shocking. There is a lot of anger. Anger that this was allowed to happen. Anger that someone, somewhere knows what happened to my son. Until I find out the truth, I am not going to stop searching.’ It is an extraordinary, heartwrenching story that almost belies belief.

HOW did the coffin end up empty? What happened to little Gary Paton? And — in a further twist — who was the baby Lydia saw in the funeral home before his burial and is convinced was not her son? It is a mystery that is still unravelling.

Lydia was a young working mother living in Edinburgh when she discovered she was pregnant with Gary. At 26, she already had two young sons Stephen, then two, and Bruce, who was four, and was employed as a childminder.

The births of both boys had been complicated and her third pregnancy was a difficult one. Yet both she and her then husband, Bruce, were delighted about the prospect of another child.

‘I already had two babies I adored, so to have a third was brilliant. I wanted him. He wasn’t expected, but the minute I found out I was pregnant I was over the moon,’ she says.

‘But it wasn’t an easy pregnancy, and some of the time I couldn’t get to work. I was tired a lot of the time.’ Several weeks before her due date, Lydia was admitted to hospital after the baby started suffering difficulties. Doctors opted to perform an experimental procedure, inserting a tube into Lydia’s womb in order to give her baby a blood transfusion.

‘I was never told it was an experiment,’ she says. ‘It was never fully explained, what it was they were doing.’ Shortly afterwards, she went into early labour and Gary was subsequently delivered by caesarean section.

It was clear from that moment that something was wrong, and instead of being allowed to cradle her newborn she was told she couldn’t see him.

When she finally did, she was shocked.

‘He had this huge swollen tummy. I was asking what was wrong but they didn’t know.

‘They were doing tests to see why it had grown so much, they were trying to feed him, trying all sorts of things. They just didn’t understand what was wrong with him.’ It wasn’t until the doctor who had performed the earlier procedure with the tube returned from holiday that he revealed that the tube had broken during the procedure and had remained stuck in the baby’s abdomen.

‘He had gone on holiday and not told the paediatricians that my son had a catheter in his gut, and on the sixth day he floats back and says “Now then, I’ve got to tell you about this catheter”.’ Despite her evident anger at Gary’s treatment, Lydia holds on to a few happy memories of her youngest son during his short life. He had beautiful eyes she says, and was small and dark.

‘Gary was a tremendous spirit,’ she says. ‘This baby was going to live as long as he possibly could. He had a big fighting spirit.’ On the day Gary died, he was taken to the Sick Children’s hospital for an operation to try to remove the tube.

Lydia was still being treated in hospital herself following her caesarean but insisted on going, just to be near him.

When the doctors came to see her after the operation, the news was not good. ‘They said to me that Gary was brain damaged, that his heart had stopped three times on the table, and that they wanted to switch off the life support and did they have my permission.

‘I said yes. So then they brought him through, but without life support. Now that seems strange to me but at the time a lot of things were going over my head, I was in such shock.

‘They brought him through to let me see him and he was just covered over his tummy with a white cloth. He was alive and breathing. He looked as though he was brain damaged though, and I got this feeling that my son wasn’t there.

‘But the medical evidence shows they put him back on to life support. Why? Was that for organ donation for transplant? ‘I spent some time sitting talking to him and I gave him a kiss, but I wasn’t allowed to hold him.’ She weeps, the memory of her baby son fresh once more in her mind.

‘He was never held. They never let me hold him. Shocking.’

Gary died later that day.

Doctors wanted to carry out a post mortem, but Lydia refused. ‘I said no, you’re not doing it. He’s had enough. Leave him alone. But then they went to the procurator fiscal and got the documents to do the post mortem anyway.’ The autopsy later revealed Gary died of swelling and infection in the abdomen.

A funeral was arranged, and at the funeral home, then run by St Cuthbert’s Co-operative, now Scotmid Funerals, Lydia was taken in to see her son one last time. But she was — and remains — convinced the baby she was shown was not hers.

‘This baby they showed me was strawberry blond and just not my baby. ‘There is no doubt there. That wasn’t even remotely like my son. Gary was small and dark.

‘This baby was so huge he couldn’t even fit in these crass, horrible little coffins, like cardboard cake boxes, that they put our babies in. I was in shock.

‘The minute I got home I phoned the hospital and said “that’s not my son. I want to see my own son”. And the doctor said “I think what’s happening here is you have postnatal depression”.’ By the day of the funeral, Lydia was beside herself.

She said: ‘There was just so much confusion. I kept doubting myself. I didn’t want to kick up a fuss. I remember this guy from the funeral home arrived at my house on the day of the funeral with what I thought was my son, and the coffin was on the front seat of the car with a jacket thrown over it and the guy had been smoking. Did he know there was nothing in it?’ At the graveside, overcome with grief, she refused to let go of the coffin.

‘This man in the graveyard put his hands out for my son’s coffin and I couldn’t do it. The thought of “is that my son going down there, or is it not?” It drove me mad.’ She wipes away another tear at the memory.

Lydia has a number of theories as to what may have happened to Gary. She was told that some of Gary’s organs were taken from him and in recent years has been active in the campaign against the organ retention scandal — uncovered in Scotland in the wake of the revelation’s at Liverpool’s Alder Hey hospital in 1999 — in which thousands of organs were removed from dead children without their families’ knowledge between 1970 and 2000.

But she still does not know what happened to his body, why an empty coffin was allowed to be buried, and why she was shown a dead child she believes was not hers in the funeral home.

Clothes that Lydia picked out for Gary for his funeral, which were given to the funeral home, have also disappeared and were not buried in the coffin.

‘If they have used him for organ donation for transplant and then incinerated his body, if that has happened, the NHS needs to be honest and tell me.

‘If he’s in a museum somewhere, I want them to find him. Because then I will stop searching. But until I find the truth I’m not going to stop. I want him back.’ And she wonders, too, if hers was an isolated case.

‘In some ways I hope I’m alone, but it may be that this has happened to others too. Thousands of children had their organs harvested without their parents’ permission.’ Since the empty coffin was exhumed a police investigation has been launched, and the NHS says it cannot comment.

Lydia has said she wants a Fatal Accident Inquiry and, on Thursday, First minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would meet with her personally.

Scotmid Funerals meanwhile have apologised and say they are looking into the matter.

FOR Lydia, it is scant comfort. Her life has never been the same since losing Gary, and the years immediately after his death were particularly hard.

She and her husband Bruce split up around a year after he died, and Lydia became, by her own admission, ‘a bitter horrible person to know’.

She said: ‘There was no talking to me. They had killed my son in my view, they had let me bury an empty coffin. I didn’t know what had happened to my son, and nothing was going to satisfy me.’ A committed Catholic, for several years she lost her faith. But she says she found solace in her two surviving sons, Steven and Bruce.

‘Babies have a habit of healing your heart. And it does help. Once you get your faith back then life, although it’s bitter, seems better.’ In 2006, in the midst of campaigning for parents whose children had had organs taken from them without their parents’ consent, Lydia lost her eldest son Bruce, who died of bowel cancer at just 34 years old. It was another terrible blow that would have broken most people.

Yet despite the hand that has been dealt her, Lydia is full of fighting spirit. She laughs and cracks jokes, her passion for her lost sons never far from the surface.

Round her neck, a constant reminder, is a little silver cross with the names of the two sons she has lost, Gary and Bruce, and the dates of their deaths.

One day, Lydia would like to have a second funeral for Gary. A real one. This time she hopes, there will be a body to place in the coffin, so that her son can finally be placed to rest.

If not, she will place the shawl that had previously lain in the coffin, along with some rosary beads. ‘My son deserves the respect of a burial,’ she says.

‘And I deserve the respect of knowing what’s happened to my son.’

Lydia Reid would like to hear from anyone who believes they may be in a similar situation.

She can be contacted on 0131 336 3590.