Lack of systematic procedure prolongs wait for kin of deceased

When 70-year-old Sakunthala did not return home for nearly a day after a visit to Government Royapettah Hospital on December 12 last, her son was not really worried. He thought she might have decided to visit one of his siblings.

When Sakunthala did not return the next day, he scouted for her in her favourite haunts – temples as far as Melmaruvathur. It was only two days later that he and his family members suspected something might have gone wrong. The woman's son-in-law filed a complaint at the Ice House police station. On March 25, they received information from the police that Sakunthala's body was in the hospital mortuary. When her children went to identify and claim the body, they found that the woman wrapped in their mother's sari was not their mother.

The next day when they returned to the mortuary, the staff there told them that their mother's body was at Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (GH) morgue. The family went to the GH and a body bearing resemblance to their mother was handed over to them.

Sakunthala's son E. Ponnambalam said, “I am still not convinced that it was my mother we took home and buried. Two of my sisters said they recognised her nose. So we took possession of the body. The jewellery she wore was missing. There is no explanation as to why her sari was wrapped on another woman's body at the Royapettah hospital morgue.”

A notice by the Adyar investigation police, however, provides a photograph of the woman and detailed description of her appearance. The photograph shows the woman wearing nose studs, ear rings and a bangle in her right hand.

The notice was circulated to police stations stating that she died in a road accident near the Ajantha Hotel on Royapettah High Road at 9.40 a.m. on December 12 and her body was in Royapettah hospital. Although the police had provided crime record details, the family remained clueless for three-and-half months.

The incident seems to point to a larger problem ailing mortuaries in the city. The GH has a capacity to store around 200 corpses and as of Saturday there were 107 corpses without claimants. Given its proximity to the Central railway station, its large premises and facilities, more patients are brought here for treatment. With the GRH's mortuary now closed for renovation, the burden of storing bodies has fallen on the GH and Kilpauk Medical College Hospital.

A problem that mortuaries constantly face is lack of hygiene. Corpse handlers said the bodies are wrapped in any old cloth. Preserving corpses in body bags would prevent contamination from putrefying flesh, they added.

According to GH Dean V. Kanagasabai, unclaimed bodies are the responsibility of the police. Until they permit their disposal, the bodies have to be stored. “Without a police inquest, we cannot initiate a post-mortem examination. The bodies are lodged in the mortuary and preserved until police decide on the course of action,” he said.

The lack of a proper system and procedure in place is what compounds the problem, according to M.S. Sivakumar, founder of Help Centre, which assists in disposing of unclaimed bodies in mortuaries.

Observing that Sakunthala's family could have been spared the ordeal if only the police and hospitals followed a procedure, he said, “A committee should be formed to lay down procedures to facilitate proper identification of the deceased.”

Suggesting that the committee be headed by the Health Secretary, with Director General of Police, Police Commissioner, Superintendent of Police, Director of Medical Education, District Collectors and Resident Medical Officers of Government Hospitals as members, Mr. Sivakumar said: “A website maintained exclusively for accident victims and those who die under normal circumstances outside their home will also help relatives to a great extent.”

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