Monday, February 1, 2010

Morgue overcrowding

A Scene in the New York Morgue -- Identification of the Unknown Dead, a wood engraving sketched by Stanley Fox and published in Harper's Weekly, July 7, 1866.

Morgues have all too frequently been known to reach capacity. Most recently in Haiti after the earthquake, the morgue quickly filled up with victims who soon filled the parking lot out front. New York City also faced an overflow after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. The economic crisis has affected the Detroit, Michigan, morgue, which is using 67 large freezers on trailers outside the building to store the bodies that remain unclaimed because their families can't afford to bury them. The Laukota Hospital morgue in Fiji is also having issues with family members neglecting to claim their dead. In the summer of 2006, the morgue in Fresno, California, reached capacity with the bodies of elderly victims of a 2-week heatwave. An 8-day heatwave in Adelaide, South Australia, filled the city morgue to capacity. Occasionally, filled morgues result in bodies that begin to decompose before they can be accomodated or are otherwise mishandled, as in Huddinge, Sweden, and in Jabiru and Gunbalanya, Northern Territory, Australia.

The grounds of Bellevue Hospital - the oldest public hospital (founded in 1736) - housed New York City's first morgue, and it is still the official mortuary for New York County and the location of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner: "About 20,000 bodies pass each year through Bellevue's morgue, 8,500 of which are never claimed. All unclaimed bodies are photographed and described, and a docket entered for them at the Police Department's Bureau of Missing Persons. After reposing for two weeks or more in refrigerated vaults of the morgue, some of the cadavers are given to private embalming schools whose students practice in a room adjoining the vaults, and a certain number are allotted to medical schools for dissection. The remainder, about 170 a week, are placed in plain, wooden coffins and carried on a barge, up the East River to Potter's Field on Hart's Island." Ironically, when 49-year-old Angel Britto died of natural causes in November 2009 after serving as an officer at Bellevue Hospital for 14 years, his body lay in the hospital's morgue for 2 months until it was claimed by his fellow officers. One of them said, "He didn't have any family and we refused to let him go to potter's field."

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