Grieving Derry families are being forced to suffer unduly as a result of a new move by the Coroners Service, local undertakers have said.
Last month the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland awarded a contract for the removal of sudden death remains from the Derry area to a firm from Lisburn. Local undertakers say the move means that remains can be left in situ for unnecessarily prolonged periods after death before being sent to Belfast for post mortem examination.
The Coroners Service has also suggested that police officers at the scene of a sudden death ensure that family members identify the remains of their loved ones there and then “to avoid family having to travel to Belfast”, where all post mortem examinations must now take place. Local undertakers have said the move has already angered local families affected.
“It may be a money-saving exercise but it also vastly diminishes the service and shows a lack of dignity and respect for the deceased,” claimed SDLP Councillor and undertaker Sean Carr.
He said that recently a body which required post mortem examination was removed from a home in Derry but had not been registered at the Regional Forensic Mortuary in Belfast until as many as six hours later.
“Recently a person was found dead at home in the early hours of the morning and the remains were removed at 10am. When the family undertaker then called the forensic mortuary in Belfast at around 4pm he was told that the remains had not been received. That was six hours later and the body hadn’t arrived.”
A post mortem examination would not be required if a GP is available to issue a death certificate or proforma letter, however Colr Carr said that quite often a GP is not available and as a result remains must go to the Belfast mortuary.
“The family of the deceased now has no choice in having a family undertaker remove the body of a loved one who dies suddenly and requires a post mortem - it’s unbelievable.
“People don’t know this until they are at their most vulnerable - until death comes to their doors.
“I see this as a major issue because I’m both an undertaker and a public representative and can see the impact it has on the bereaved.”
He also questioned how the new directive would save money as the undertakers would have to travel such long distances.
Colr Carr told the ‘Journal’ that a letter seeking clarification on the move has been sent by SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey to Justice Minister David Ford.
He added: “There were 150 sudden deaths recorded in Derry last year but only 50 were deemed as requiring post mortem and were sent to Belfast because the remains were taken to a local undertakers until a decision was made by the GP.
“One hundred bodies did not have to be taken to Belfast year, now it seems that because a contracted undertaker is tasked to remove bodies to Belfast immediately that remains will make the journey unnecessarily.”
Another undertaker, who did not wish to be named, called for Altnagelvin Hospital mortuary to once again be used for post mortem examinations. “Why after 50 years plus can Altnagelvin mortuary no longer be utilised in respect of sudden deaths locally?
“Families are being denied the basic right of seeing their loved ones in a warm, respectful and neutral environment which involves very little travel in comparison with having to go to Belfast in all weather conditions.”