3 new freezer units now tucked away in hospital’s underground garage, housing unclaimed dead

Three new mobile freezer units have been built in the Health Sciences Centre’s garage to store unclaimed bodies. The storage units now have a wall built around them, blocking them from sight. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC News)

Just one day after CBC News reported that the largest hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador was storing dozens of unclaimed bodies in temporary freezers in an alleyway, the province’s health authority went shopping for new equipment.

Three newly constructed freezer units have been set up inside the Health Sciences Centre underground parking lot to deal with the morgue’s overflow of corpses — and this time it’s keeping them out of sight.

On March 6, CBC News first reported 28 bodies were being stored in freezer units outside the Health Sciences Centre due to a lack of space in the morgue, which doubles as the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

On June 25, those units were removed from the alleyway.

Three new units have been built a few minutes walk away, tucked away in an underground parking lot that is not directly viewable from the street. 

While there are a few vehicles and ambulances parked in the garage, the freezer units take up several parking spots once reserved for disabled drivers and expectant parents. A wall has been erected, blocking them from view.

Ron Johnson, chief operating officer of N.L. Health Services’ Eastern Urban zone, said the changes were implemented for a more dignified and respectful place for the storage of bodies.

“I’m pleased to say that that’s in place now. And we removed the coolers from the loading docks. That was just done today,” Johnson told CBC News.

Man in blue suit standing in a board room.
Ron Johnson, chief operating officer of Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services’ Eastern Urban zone, says changes have been made to storage for unclaimed bodies in order to be more respectful. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC News)

Having the units inside is a better setup than the previous arrangement, he said.

“We realized that we had an issue with these unclaimed remains. And so what we did immediately is we put a little team together to sort of draft the policy in dealing with that and in a very dignified and respectful way,” said Johnson.

He said the team was formed several months ago to get a handle on how the health authority handles unclaimed remains, looking at best practices in other jurisdictions.

“We’ve worked on the policy, we’ve worked on the infrastructure and we’re making some positive progress.”

WATCH | The CBC’s Elizabeth Whitten reports on the changes of how the largest hospital in N.L. stores dead bodies: 

St. John’s hospital has more freezer units to store unclaimed bodies — but they’re still not inside the building

Three new freezer units are set up within an underground parking lot at the Health Sciences Centre to help with the morgue’s overflow of corpses. They were previously located in an alleyway, outside of the building, visible from the parking lot and nearby trail. As the CBC’s Beth Whitten reports, there have been other changes, and many of them were put in motion one day after CBC News first reported on the story.

All four of the hospital’s freezer units — as well as a fifth that is being used in the short term — are now being stored in the garage.

“We have them now inside the building and what that does, it gives us an ability to be able to work more effectively than outside of the elements,” said Johnson.

Building morgue space

According to Newfoundland and Labrador procurement contracts, Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services acted soon after CBC News reported that unclaimed bodies were being stored.

On March 7 — the day after CBC News reported the story — N.L. Health Services purchased a morgue carrier/hydraulic roller valued at $10,282.79, as well as a morgue rack/lift for $96,604.24.

That was followed by an order for a morgue cover/frame for $29,558.12 and a morgue rack/roller for $83,961.93.

Between March 7 and March 13, N.L. Health Services paid Toronto-based laboratory supply and biotechnology company Fisher Scientific a total of $220,407.08 for items to kit out a morgue.

“Those were probably ordered at around that time and most of [those] items came in the past few weeks and we’ve implemented and used those now in our temporary storage location,” said Johnson, who confirmed the contracts were to build the new freezer units and that the equipment arrived several weeks ago.

More storage in works

Previously announced plans for a new and expanded morgue that can handle long-term storage for more unclaimed bodies is on schedule to be completed in October, said Johnson.

“The temporary location and the permanent location are all in the same place,” he said. “The plans and the ordering of the materials, all that’s all well away.”

Johnson wouldn’t say how many corpses the new facility will be able to hold, just that it will give them increased capacity.

“The more important part of this is actually, you know, dealing with the families and the next of kin in a timely way, in a respectful way, so that they could have a dignified burial. And that’s what we’re really focused on,” said Johnson.

Johnson said he wouldn’t disclose the current number of unclaimed bodies out of respect for the families.

Corey Murray, senior director of pathology and laboratory medicine, said he didn’t have a figure for how much storage is costing the health authority.

“These cooler units we’re maintaining and we have staff that are being used to effectively take care of the descendants, so I actually don’t have a cost that I can share,” said Murray.

In some cases, bodies remain unclaimed because of the rising cost of living, with family members unable to afford funerals for their loved ones.

Photo of loading bay area in back of brick building
In March, CBC News reported 28 bodies were being stored in freezer units in an alleyway outside the Health Sciences Centre. Those units were removed last week. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC News)

Johnson said the health authority is working with families to get bodies out of storage.

When a body isn’t claimed, he said, the health authority appoints a public trustee to work on getting custody of the body and arranging a burial.

However, if money for a funeral isn’t available, the bodies stay put.

In that event, the public trustee works with the government, he said.

“And then it’s sort of out of our hands a little bit.”

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