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Articles covering unidentified persons cases across all of Canada's provinces.
- Joined: 26 Jun 2006, 20:39
Her only known name is Jane Doe. Her remains were found in 2001 on Mount Royal behind the Royal Victoria Hospital.
She is thought to have been dead at least two years upon her discovery. Her bones showed no marks of violence, and no evidence of assault was found at the scene. The deceased, thought to have been 60 years old, was found wearing a surgical uniform. As part of a lengthy investigation, police interviewed hospital staff and patients without success.
Her body remained in a freezer at the Surete du Quebec morgue on Parthenais St. for eight years -the longest resident on record at the Montreal morgue. Her body was finally buried last year, but the case remains open with no cause of death, suspects or victim identification.
"It really is a mystery," said Gilles Ethier, deputy chief at the Quebec coroner's office in Montreal.
But this is just one of the many stories about the bodies that pass through the morgue, which handles the unclaimed cases and suspicious deaths for all of Quebec.
"We see a lot, there's no question about it," Ethier said.
Last year, the morgue handled 61 cases of unclaimed bodies. The annual average for Quebec has nearly doubled since the 1990s, going to 60 from 37.
So what happens to all of those unclaimed bodies?
Walking down the hallway at the morgue is a surreal experience.
It's like being in a CSI episode, except there are no props and no witty investigation team. The morgue is in the basement of the building and is composed of several rooms for storing and processing the bodies. The air is cold, and the smell of formaldehyde is inescapable. Walking by brightly lit rooms with surgical tables and tools laid out for the next autopsy arouses an eerie sense of finality.
The refrigeration rooms are spotless. That's where the recently arrived bodies are stored.
"We process about 4,000 cases each year," Ethier said. "In order to be a coroner case, the death had to be suspicious or violent or the victim was unidentified."
Unclaimed bodies are categorized into three types: unidentified corpses; identified corpses unclaimed by family members; and identified corpses whose family cannot be reached.
"Sometimes we identify the body and contact the family and either they can't afford a funeral or they hadn't seen the person in 20 years," Ethier explained. "So they just decide not to take possession of the body."
In those cases, the remains are either transferred to a university for anatomy classes or cremated. This also applies if the police identify the body and there are no living relatives.
The process is different for bodies that remain unidentified. "The law states that we have to keep an unclaimed body for 30 days and then we're allowed to bury it," Ethier said. "But it takes more like two months by the time we get through our process."
When an unidentified body arrives at the morgue, the coroner puts in a request to police to search for family members.
"But when the body can't be identified, we have a whole process to go through," he said. "We do radiology of the whole body and dental X-rays, and we take DNA which we keep on file indefinitely."
Sometimes a family member will come in days later because they haven't seen or heard from their relative.
"We ask them to bring in something that would contain DNA, like a hairbrush, and we run it to see if it matches with any of our unidentified cases," he said. "If it matches, we release the body to them."
Unidentified bodies are often people who don't have a fixed residence and travel from province to province.
"We used to keep the bodies here in the freezer until they were identified, but last year we decided it wasn't respectful to do that long-term and that they should be buried instead," Ethier said. "Also, we needed the space -we were running out of room."
The morgue has a freezer room that can hold up to 40 bodies and six refrigerated rooms that hold almost 260 bodies. And it's not just whole bodies that are stored.
In addition to the unclaimed corpses, the morgue has about 400 open cases of unidentified human remains. "It could be any human part like a hand or a femur," Ethier said. "We're trying to find a solution for what to do with them because we can't bury the remains individually -that would take too much room."
The morgue has a contract with a funeral home to bury the unclaimed bodies in a cemetery on the South Shore. The graves are unmarked, but the funeral home has a record of who is buried where. The caskets are minimalist and buried in shallow graves.
"The bodies and remains cannot be cremated because when we don't know who the person is, there's always a chance that the family will eventually be found and ask to have their relative's remains," Ethier explained.
In such cases, the family can fill out an exhumation request to take possession of the body and it's then transferred to whichever cemetery they choose.
"But that doesn't happen very often," he said. "Usually once they're buried, that's it."
The cemetery they use has room for about the next 10 years, assuming the average number of unclaimed cases doesn't greatly increase.
Ethier said he believes the rise in unclaimed bodies over the last two decades is a reflection of societal changes.
"I think it's because people are detached nowadays," he said, looking at cadaver freezers marked only with a series of numbers. "Families live far from each other, a lot of people live alone. You try not to judge, but it's sad."
Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/question+ab...l#ixzz0uhLArHM4
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