Families left heartbroken after bodies 'left in mortuary fridges for up to five weeks'


Families have been "breaking down in tears" after delays have seen people's dead relatives stored in mortuary fridges for up to five weeks.

Staffordshire coroners' service has been dealing with hold-ups in the processing of bodies which a funeral director believes is because of the closure of a key mortuary in the area. But the local council says there's a national shortage of qualified pathologists trained to undertake post-mortems.

The director has slammed the delays that have left families sobbing as they are forced to wait to see their loved ones.

The funeral director told StokeonTrentLive: "We have families breaking down in tears, they want to know why they can’t see their loved-ones. As funeral directors, we’re always very careful what we say, but they push you.

"We have to tell them, 'we’re sorry, five weeks have passed by, they’ve deteriorated'. It’s appalling. It's an appalling situation. As funeral directors, you try to do your utmost best but this is just appalling."

A funeral director is not allowed to carry out any preservation work before a post-mortem examination.

The undertaker added: "As soon as we know that the person’s death has got to be investigated, we offer to the families that they can come in and see their loved-one straight away.

"We have to explain the situation to relatives. They’ve got to come in very quickly and we’re not allowed to wash and dress them as we normally would after a post mortem.

"Afterwards we would wash and dress them, ladies have their hair and make-up done nice and neatly."

The funeral director partly links the delays - which started over Christmas - to the closure of Cannock public mortuary in October.

They added: "The closure hasn’t helped at all. Cannock public mortuary used to accept any deceased from Coven, Codsall, up to Wolverhampton and all the way to Lichfield. Now all those areas have to go to Stoke-on-Trent as well as Stafford."

Staffordshire County Council has acknowledged delays over the winter. It denies the problem was due to the closure of Cannock public mortuary and says the backlog was cleared in April. But the funeral director claims the backlog has returned.

They added: "We’ve started having the same problems again. We’ve got people who still haven’t left us to even be looked at and it has been three and four weeks.

"They’re deteriorating so badly, even in the mortuary fridge. We’re expected to keep deceased people for weeks before they have a post-mortem. By the time they’ve gone and come back they’re not suitable to be seen. It’s not acceptable. We’ve got this problem and we don’t know what to do about it.

"People go through such a lot of stress when someone dies. There are certain things you need to do that help you, like booking the funeral, knowing you’ve got a date, it helps people so much.

"Seeing your loved-one in the chapel of rest, knowing they’re going to be dressed nicely. If it goes too far that isn’t possible. Having to tell people that isn’t possible, like elderly husbands and elderly wives, it’s appalling. It’s a situation that is man-made, caused by the system."

'The issue is nationwide'

Councillor Victoria Wilson, cabinet member for communities, said: "During the winter there was an exceptional increase in the number of referrals to the coroners' office in Staffordshire, a situation common across the whole of England. This was coupled with an ongoing national shortage in pathologists trained to undertake post-mortem work, leading to these concerning delays.

"This situation was not caused by the closure of Cannock public mortuary. Before the decision was taken to close Cannock in October 2022 we put in place arrangements with mortuaries in Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham and Derby that have increased Staffordshire coroners’ access to mortuary space.

"The coroners’ service has also introduced CT scanning for some post-mortems to mitigate the shortage of pathologists and, by April, the backlog in cases from the winter had been cleared.

"The coroners’ office is continuing to work hard with partners, including the county council, to provide a prompt and responsive service across the county."

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