Province remains silent as documents show number of unclaimed bodies in morgues has doubled

Province remains silent as documents show number of unclaimed bodies in morgues has doubled
Province remains silent as documents show number of unclaimed bodies in morgues has doubled

An access to information request reveals the number of unclaimed remains at the Health Sciences Centre dropped from 12 to 27 in a short period of time. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest hospital is facing a growing problem of unclaimed bodies being held in storage, with records showing the number has skyrocketed over the past year.

On March 6, CBC News first reported 28 bodies were kept in freezers in the loading area of ​​the Health Sciences Centre due to lack of space in the morgue, which also serves as the office of the chief coroner.

Those units were recently removed and are now located in the hospital’s underground parking garage. A wall was also built to keep the units out of sight.

Recently released documents show that this number has increased.

A request for information filed by the NDP last year and shared with CBC News found that the body count has more than doubled.

According to documents, the number of unclaimed bodies at the HSC as of October 2022 was 12.

But according to minutes from a January 9, 2024, commission meeting, “there are 27 unclaimed bodies in temporary storage on the HSC property.”

The memo said that work was being done on another freezer and that the problem was not unique to St. John’s. “Other areas were experiencing the same issue,” the memo said.

CBC News has repeatedly asked Children, Seniors and Development Minister Paul Pike for an interview. His staff has declined.

Instead, a statement was sent reiterating previous commitments, including that he is working with funeral home owners on an evaluation and that a review of the funeral income support policy is underway.

NDP Leader Jim Dinn criticized the government for its years of inaction, saying the documents show the government had been aware of the problem since 2020.

WATCH | Mike Moore has been reporting since April on how unclaimed bodies at a St. John’s hospital were linked to the high cost of living — and dying:

Overcrowded St. John’s morgue reveals problems with elderly and poverty, advocates say

Forced to use mobile freezers to store unclaimed bodies, a St. John’s hospital is an indicator of the high cost of living — and of dying. CBC’s Mike Moore reports.

“I would like to say that I am shocked by this report, but it shows exactly what I have been hearing from families and funeral directors since 2020,” Dinn said in the statement Tuesday morning.

“The government only took action to address this issue after they were embarrassed by the media who made it public. A trademark of this government.”

According to CBC News, senior government officials had already been briefed.

Sources familiar with the funeral industry told CBC News the issue was brought to the government’s attention in 2016.

The newly released documents reveal concerns that in some cases bodies are not being claimed because of the rising cost of livingwhile relatives cannot pay for the funerals of their loved ones.

Moved to parking garage

In an earlier interview with CBC News, Ron Johnson, director of operations for NL Health Services’ eastern metropolitan area, said the unclaimed bodies were being moved from the hospital’s cargo hold to the parking garage for a more dignified place for storing bodies and it was a better arrangement than the previous arrangement.

“We realized we had a problem with these unclaimed remains, so what we did right away was put together a small team to create policies to deal with this, and to do so in a very dignified and respectful way,” Johnson said.

He would not disclose how many bodies are currently stored there, saying he had respect for the families.

Work is underway to provide more storage for unclaimed bodies, Johnson said, as the underground parking lot is to become the location for a new and expanded mortuary which can handle the long-term storage of more unclaimed bodies.

NDP Leader Jim Dinn says the government has been aware of the problem of unclaimed bodies for years, but no action has been taken to solve it. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Opposition politicians have also criticised the relocation of the freezers.

Dinn had previously said that the government would “out of sight, out of mind” strategy for storing unclaimed bodies in a parking garage. It is expected to be completed in October.

Barry Petten, PC MHA of Conception Bay South and the party’s health critic, criticised the way resources were being diverted to solving the cost of living problem, calling the situation “scandalous”.

“Just moving the problem to a parking garage will not solve it,” Petten said in a recent statement.

Dinn and Petten say Pike promised to take action months ago, but nothing has changed.

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