Why Washington might shorten the time mortuaries must keep unclaimed bodies

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Funeral directors, medical examiners and coroners are turning to the state for help with a morbid problem.

Mortuaries are running short on cooler space because state law requires them to keep human remains refrigerated for at least 90 days when no surviving family members are available or willing to claim responsibility for the body.

A bill introduced by Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, would halve that waiting period to 45 days. House Bill 1974 will also add counties to the list of groups authorized to dispose of human remains and requires counties, like all authorized groups, to transfer unclaimed bodies of veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill originally lowered the waiting period to 30 days. Before 1995, it was at least a year. There wasn’t any “scientific method” that went into determining the 45-day period, Abarrno said — some lawmakers were just concerned 30 days was too short.

“We were just happy to get it reduced to anything lower than 90,” said Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association.

The 90-day waiting period is particularly a problem in rural counties, where there are as few as seven to nine coolers to hold bodies countywide, according to Goff. Right now, Goff said funeral homes without space just find any cooler available — whether at a hospital or a competing funeral home.

“It gets to a point where people are just finding a spot to rest [the body] until [the cooler] becomes available. That’s not a dignified way to handle remains,” Goff said.

The situation also creates a health hazard. Before the 90-day waiting period is over, mortuaries are not allowed to embalm or cremate people without authorization from their next-of-kin, so the cooler is the only way to keep remains preserved.

“Natural decomposition continues to take place,” Goff said. “The cooler will slow that decomposition process down. But the longer they’re deceased, they will just continue to have that natural decomposition process. The body will break down to basic elements.”

The bill will not impact how bodies are processed when involved in a criminal case, such as when a body must be autopsied.

When someone dies, a medical examiner will notify next-of-kin. If there’s no known family, the body stays at the coroner’s. But sometimes, people send their deceased family member to a local funeral home and then abandon the body.

If the person legally responsible for the body renews contact with a funeral home, then disappears again, the waiting period starts over — which means a funeral home might store a body for 180 days or more, depending on how a county interprets state law.

Coroners and funeral directors told lawmakers that COVID-19 made the limits of cooler space in Washington particularly clear. During the height of the pandemic, abandonment was even more common — sometimes, the next-of-kin couldn’t step in because they were in the hospital with COVID, Goff said. As deaths and abandonment rose, some funeral homes resorted to renting semi-trucks with refrigerator units.

Goff said giving permission to a funeral home to dispose of a person’s remains doesn’t necessarily mean family members are required to pick up the cost, but that misconception is one of the most common reasons abandonment happens.

“We feel that 45 days is plenty of time for families to step in if they’re going to step in,” Goff said. “We don’t have a big history of families abandoning people and then coming back.”

Abbarno said he isn’t sure whether the bill will pass this session and hasn’t heard from caucus leaders about whether it will get a vote on the House floor, but he called it a “good government” bill that he believes everyone can get behind.

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

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