Medical examiner: Store dead people somewhere else

By Andy Jenks - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A battle is brewing between the state and local law enforcement over what to do with dead people.

The state medical examiner is telling cities and counties: Find someplace else to store unclaimed bodies, and, find some way to pay for it. That has some on the local level concerned.

When people die in a crime, their bodies go to the state medical examiner's office for an autopsy. But what happens when people die of natural causes and nobody claims the body?

"Usually they're unclaimed for 3, 6 months...sometimes a year," said Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade.

Wade says, for years, those bodies also would be stored -free of charge- with the medical examiner. But in a March 1 memo not made public until now, law enforcement was told to find "alternate storage". Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Leah Bush wrote that the state office "cannot legally function as a local city or county morgue."

"Bodies just can't be left lying around, they're gonna have to be placed somewhere," Wade said.

That means a hospital, or funeral home. And with 10-15 unclaimed bodies in Henrico every year, Wade says it could get expensive.

"And we've heard horror stories of places that have been paying $100, $150 a day for storage of the bodies," Wade said.

Statewide, the ME's office handled 200-300 unclaimed bodies in a typical year. The longest time spent in storage, was typically six to eight months according to figures released by the office.

"You've got funeral homes that have the capability of storage and I know they're worried about getting a body  that's put in there forever and ever," Wade said.

Wade says he's in talks with the Henrico County attorney about whether the new state policy is legal.

"It's looked at as another unfunded mandate for localities. And the big question is who really is responsible for the bodies?" Wade asked.

The medical examiner's office would not comment beyond what's in the memo.

* * *

TO: Virginia Police Chiefs, Sheriffs, Funeral Directors, Hospitals, and Nursing Homes
FROM: Leah Bush, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner
SUBJECT: Body Storage of Natural Death, Non-Medical Examiner Cases

Effective immediately, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) will no longer accept non-medical examiner cases for storage in our district offices.  The OCME has no statutory jurisdiction over human remains that are not medical examiner cases; therefore, the OCME cannot accept or take possession of non-medical examiner bodies at medical examiner district facilities.

As a state agency, located in state owned facilities, the OCME cannot legally function as a local city or county morgue.  Holding and storage of natural deaths awaiting next of kin notification or a final family disposition decision is not our legislated role.  Storage of non ME natural death cases is the responsibility of the locality where the death occurs.  Therefore, you must find alternate storage for non ME natural deaths occurring within your locality.

The OCME has no liability protection for storing/holding non-medical examiner natural death cases.  The OCME must also be able to respond to the increasing numbers of deaths falling under ME jurisdiction (Virginia Code § 32.1-283) as well as maintain surge capacity for times of increased demand, such as in mass fatality incidents or other disasters.

Please develop alternate plans for the storage of these non ME natural deaths, perhaps by coordinating with your locality's funeral homes and hospitals.  If questions arise about whether a death falls under the jurisdiction of the OCME, you may call the district office for confirmation of medical examiner case status.  Bodies delivered without the prior authorization of the district office will be turned away.  If you have storage needs related to a medical examiner case, please call your OCME district office for any discussion concerning the storage of ME cases.

The goal of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is to provide the best medicolegal death investigation services for the citizens of the Commonwealth.  Your assistance in meeting this goal is much appreciated.

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