3 new freezers now hidden in the hospital’s underground garage, housing unclaimed dead

Three metal container units in a parking lot
Three new mobile freezers have been built in the garage of the Health Sciences Centre to store unclaimed bodies. The storage units now have a wall around them, making them invisible. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC News)

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

Three new freezers have been installed in the underground car park of the Health Sciences Centre to accommodate the flood of bodies in the morgue. This time they have been kept out of sight.

On March 6, CBC News first reported 28 bodies were kept in freezers outside the Health Sciences Centre due to lack of space in the mortuary, which also serves as the chief coroner’s office.

On June 25, these units were removed from the alley.

Three new units have been built within a few minutes’ walk, hidden in an underground parking garage that is not directly visible from the street.

While there are a few vehicles and ambulances in the garage, the freezers take up several parking spaces once reserved for disabled drivers and expectant parents, and a wall has been built to block them from view.

According to Ron Johnson, director of operations for NL Health Services’ eastern metropolitan zone, the changes were made to create a more dignified and respectful place to store bodies.

“I’m happy to say that that has now happened. And we have removed the coolers from the loading docks. That just happened today,” Johnson told CBC News.

Man in blue suit stands in a conference room.
Ron Johnson, director of operations for the Eastern Urban Zone of Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services, says changes have been made to the storage of unclaimed bodies to be more respectful. (Elizabeth Whitten/CBC News)

According to him, it is better to place the units indoors than before.

“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 said the team was formed several months ago to gain insight into how the health authority handles unclaimed remains, looking at best practices in other jurisdictions.

“We have worked on the policy, we have worked on the infrastructure and we are making positive progress.”

WATCH | CBC’s Elizabeth Whitten reports on changes in the way the largest hospital in the Netherlands stores bodies:

St. John’s Hospital has more freezers to store unclaimed bodies, but they are still not in the building

Three new freezers have been set up in an underground parking lot at the Health Sciences Centre to help with the morgue’s overflow of bodies. They were previously located in an alley outside the building, visible from the parking lot and a nearby path. As CBC’s Beth Whitten reports, there have been other changes, many of which were put into motion a day after CBC News first reported the story.

All four of the hospital’s freezers, plus a fifth that will be used in the short term, are now stored in the garage.

“We now have them in the building and it allows us to work more effectively than if we were outside,” Johnson said.

Mortuary room building

Under Newfoundland and Labrador’s purchasing contracts, Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services responded quickly after CBC News reported that unclaimed bodies were being stored there.

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

This was followed by an order for a mortuary lid/frame for $29,558.12 and a mortuary rack/roll for $83,961.93.

Between March 7 and March 13, NL Health Services paid a total of $220,407.08 to Fisher Scientific, a Toronto-based laboratory supplies and biotechnology company, for supplies to equip a mortuary.

“They were probably ordered around that time and most of them [those] “We have had new items arrive over the last few weeks and we now have them deployed and operational in our temporary storage facility,” said Johnson, who confirmed that the contracts were for the construction of the new freezer units and that the equipment arrived several weeks ago.

More storage in the making

Previously announced plans for a new, expanded morgue that can handle long-term storage of more unclaimed bodies are scheduled to be completed in October, Johnson said.

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

Johnson would not say how many bodies the new facility will hold, but said it will increase capacity.

“The most important part of this is really, you know, dealing with the families and the survivors in a timely and respectful manner so that they can have a dignified burial. And that’s really what we’re focused on,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he would not release the current number of unclaimed bodies out of respect for the families.

Corey Murray, senior director of pathology and laboratory medicine, said he did not have figures on how much storage is costing the health authority.

“We maintain these cold stores and have staff that actually care for the offspring, so I don’t really have any costs to share,” Murray said.

In some cases, bodies remain unclaimed due to the rising cost of livingwhile relatives cannot pay for the funerals of their loved ones.

Photo of loading dock at rear of brick building
In March, CBC News reported that 28 bodies were being stored in freezers in an alley 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 remove the bodies from storage.

When a body is unclaimed, he says, the health authority appoints a public trustee who takes custody of the body and arranges a funeral.

However, if there is no money for a burial, the bodies are left where they are.

In that case, the public administrator works together with the government, he said.

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

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