Province stays mum as documents show number of unclaimed morgue bodies has doubled

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

Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest hospital has a growing problem of unclaimed bodies being kept in storage and documents reveal the number exploded over the course of a year.

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

Those units were recently removed and are now tucked away in the hospital’s underground parking garage. A wall had also been erected to block the units from sight.

Newly released documents show how that number has climbed. 

An access to information request filed by the NDP and shared with CBC News shows in the last year, the number of bodies has more than doubled. 

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

But, according to a committee meeting note dated Jan. 9, 2024, “there are 27 unclaimed bodies in temporary storage onsite at HSC.” 

The note added that work was underway to get another freezer unit and that the problem wasn’t unique to St. John’s. “Other zones experiencing the same issue,” said the note.

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

Instead, a statement reiterating past commitments has been sent, including that he was working with funeral home owners in a review and there is a review underway of the income support funeral benefit policy.

NDP leader Jim Dinn blasted the government over years of inaction, saying the documents show government knew about the problem since 2020.

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

Overflowing morgue in St. John’s reveals issues with seniors 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. The CBC’s Mike Moore reports.

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

“Government only chose to take action to address this issue after they were embarrassed by media making it public. A trademark of this government.”

CBC News has been told that senior goverment officials were briefed even earlier.  

However, sources familiar with the funeral industry have told CBC News that the issue was brought to the government’s attention in 2016.

The newly released documents show concerns that in some cases, bodies remain unclaimed because of the rising cost of living, with family members unable to afford funerals for their loved ones.

Relocated to parking garage

In a prior interview with CBC News, Ron Johnson, chief operating officer of N.L. Health Services’ eastern urban zone, said the unclaimed bodies were moved from the hospital’s loading bay to the parking garage for a more dignified place for the storage of bodies and it was a better setup than the previous arrangement.

“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 would not disclose how many bodies were currently in storage, citing respect for the families. 

More storage for unclaimed bodies is in the works, Johnson said with the underground parking lot set to become the site for a new and expanded morgue that can handle long-term storage for more unclaimed bodies.

A man in a blue suit standing inside a lobby.
NDP Leader Jim Dinn says the government has known about the problem of unclaimed bodies for years and hasn’t acted to solve it. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The relocation of the freezer units has also been criticized by opposition politicians.

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

Conception Bay South PC MHA Barry Petten, the party’s health critic, took issue with how resources were being diverted away from solving a cost of living problem, calling the situation “outrageous.”

“Simply moving the issue out of sight in a parking garage will not solve the problem,” Petten said in a recent statement.

Dinn and Petten said Pike had promised action on the problem months ago but nothing has changed.

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