- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) - The elderly woman is wrapped tightly in a white sheet to help preserve her body as much as possible. Little else can be done while officials wait for someone to claim her body or to allow the courts to complete the process to legally dispose of her remains.

The woman died at a nursing home in March and her next-of-kin did not claim her remains. She was held at the funeral home for a while before it was required to move her. Her body is stored at the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, in a mobile morgue. It is a refrigerated utility-style trailer, loaded with racks and trays to hold 18 bodies.

The problem is, though, the mobile morgue is intended to be just that, Sheriff Todd Entrekin told the County Commission in a recent meeting.

The mobile morgue is designed for mass disasters and was used in Calhoun County when the tornadoes hit on April 27, 2011, he said.

“They’re not designed for everyday use,” Entrekin said. “They’re certainly not designed to keep someone in for months.”

But that is what is happening. Sometimes there are a few bodies at one time, but now it’s just one.

Not long ago, there was another body kept for months because authorities could not find the next of kin.

The mobile morgue is kept in a locked, secure location, plugged into a large outlet to keep the refrigeration operating adequately.

Even with the refrigerated storage, it’s sometimes difficult to keep down the odor of decomposing bodies.

“We’re concerned that if the equipment fails, we could have a big problem and it could become a big liability,” Entrekin said.

He and Coroner Michael Head told the commission they hope to locate some freezer units designed to more permanently store bodies. They are still looking for a location to establish the units.

Head and Entrekin expect to come up with a cost estimate to establish a freezer that would hold a few bodies at once.

If more than a few were in use, the mobile morgue still could be a temporary backup.

“If we had a mass casualty situation anywhere in this area right now and they needed our unit, we wouldn’t be able to respond,” Entrekin said.

Head said he previously opposed a permanent morgue, but now realizes it must be an option for some circumstances.

Once someone is deceased, it is the coroner’s responsibility to hold the body until it is claimed. Often, if an autopsy is required, a body is held in the mobile morgue for a few days - or as long as it takes for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences to reach that body on its autopsy schedule. With cuts in that department, Head said, there is a longer wait for autopsies than ever before.

In the majority of cases, family members claim the body and it goes straight to a funeral home after autopsy, or to the funeral home from the location of death.

The funeral homes have some storage, Head said, but their space also is limited.

“One local funeral home has had a body since May,” Head said. “Luckily, they haven’t dumped the body on us, and they could.”

But there are cases where the family won’t claim the body because they can’t pay, or won’t, Head said.

“In most cases, though, it’s because they won’t pay,” he said.

Even though it is the coroner’s responsibility, Entrekin said the coroner’s budget has no money in it for storage, so he has been helping out by using the mobile morgue.

Head said the sheriff and deputies also help try to locate next of kin. But after a certain period, he said, Probate Judge Bobby Junkins is asked to begin the process for disposition of the body.

“We have to get him to go through the proper channels so we can dispose of the body,” Head said.

For those bodies not claimed and determined to have no resources to pay, the County Commission is required by law to pay for disposal after the legal action is complete. The commission has opted to use cremation.

In 2012, it paid for 23; in 2013, it paid for 10; and in 2014, it paid for 10. It has paid for 11 so far this fiscal year, Kevin Dollar, the county’s chief financial officer, said.

Cremation cannot be done until it has been determined the deceased person qualifies as an indigent. Junkins said he can’t just sign a document that allows for the disposition of the body.

“It’s just not that simple. We have to follow the law,” he said, adding that the law is “pages and pages.”

“We have to give notice and set a hearing,” Junkins said. “We try our best to make every effort for notification of those who need to be aware of the hearing.”

He said the goal is to have a representative of the deceased person at the hearing.

Junkins said in some cases, people are afraid that if they claim the body, they are obligated to a funeral home for costs.

In another situation, a woman’s parents came forward, but could not claim her body because her husband was the next of kin.

Junkins said the parents originally said they didn’t know where the husband was. He warned them that if they testified in court to that, and it was proven they did know, they could be charged with perjury.

With that, the parents admitted her husband was in prison up north and the hearing wasn’t required.

“They just didn’t want to have to have any dealings with him,” Junkins said.

Junkins said those types of situations, or financial reasons, lead to unclaimed bodies.

“People will come in and some don’t want to pay so they won’t claim the body,” he said. “Some can’t pay.”

Either way, it is an issue for the sheriff’s office, the coroner and the funeral homes and the courts, Junkins said.

“People just don’t like to talk about death,” he said.

___

Information from: The Gadsden Times, https://www.gadsdentimes.com

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