Will funeral homes have enough space for bodies?

By Andy Jenks - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - What if Virginia's funeral homes suddenly started running out of space for human bodies? It's an issue funeral directors are trying to solve, before it becomes a serious problem.

As NBC12 first reported earlier this month, Virginia will no longer use state morgues to store unclaimed bodies; i.e. the people who die of natural causes, but have no natural relatives or next of kin. Instead, cities and counties have to find room at local funeral homes, and foot the bill as well. But funeral directors wonder if there will even be enough space?

Bliley's Funeral Home is among the biggest in Richmond. And even here, there's a concern it's not big enough.

"Funeral homes wouldn't have the space collectively, even all of the Richmond area funeral homes would not have the storage space to accommodate that need," said Carey Bliley, president of Bliley's Funeral Home.

On average, the state medical examiner would store 200-300 unclaimed bodies a year, according to figures released by the office. That was until March 1, when the practice officially stopped, and the burden shifted to localities.

"We've all had to brainstorm a bit to come up with a solution to the problem, and certainly it will involve some cost to the county. But we're still in such early stages, we're not sure how that will work out yet," said Ellen Fulmer, assistant Henrico County attorney.

In Henrico, county attorneys have, so far, concluded the state is not skirting its main responsibility to examine only the people who die in accidents or crimes. And most members of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association have yet to lodge complaints.

"We've always had a very cooperative relationship with the Chief Medical Examiner's office, we hope that as we run into bumps in the road as we get into this new law, to have that cooperation going forward, and work these things out," said David Anderson, counsel for the VFDA.

But the medical examiner's memo doesn't answer every question, including: Who pays? Who's legally responsible? And where should the bodies go?

"This is something that's new, and we would just want to see everything spelled out as far as liability concerns," Bliley said, adding that, "Irregardless of what's set up there needs to be respect for the dead. The process, that needs to be the most important thing thought about."

Bodies can go unclaimed for days, or even several months. The cost can be more than $100 a day, according to a June 2 interview given by Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade. Currently, Henrico is one of many counties that must take bids for the storage of unclaimed bodies. Once the bids are placed, it will become more clear just how many funeral homes are prepared to assist with the new regulations.

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