Ontario is looking to reunite 4,000 autopsy organs with the dead people's relatives, or at least find out how families want the body parts disposed of.

In reaching out to the family members Wednesday, the province also apologized for its past failure to tell bereaved relatives that organs were being retained for further study.

Dr. Michael Pollanen, the province's chief forensic pathologist, said withholding the information was done to spare relatives added grief, but times have changed.

"I'm sorry for any distress this may cause families," Pollanen said.

"Based on today's standards, we could have communicated more openly with families in the past."

Bereaved relatives asked to reach out

Relatives are being asked to contact the coroner's office to find out whether an organ belonging to a deceased loved one may have been retained.

They can then ask that the body parts be returned to them at the coroner's expense through a funeral home for cremation or burial.

If the family does not want organs returned, or for those that go unclaimed by next June, the coroner would then cremate them.

Only deaths that occurred before June 14, 2010 are potentially affected, given the changes in procedure since then.

Some families may stay away

Pollanen conceded some families may not want to be "confronted" with the information but said it should not be up to the coroner to impose a course of action on them.

"It's a sensitive issue," Pollanen said. "We want to work with families to find a solution that's best for them."

Organs were retained in some cases post-autopsy to allow for further detailed study as part of the investigation that usually occurs in cases of suicides, homicides and sudden unexplained deaths.

They have been stored in coroner's offices and hospitals around the province from as far back as the 1970s.

Minister apologizes

"On behalf of the government, I want to apologize for any distress brought upon families as a result of learning that the organ of a family member who died before June 14, 2010 may have been retained," Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said.

Meilleur compared the reach-out to the opening up of adoption files by balancing the need for transparency with the upset disclosure might cause.

Nowadays, organs are rarely held back -- and then only with the permission of the chief forensic pathologist -- given advances in medical pathology that require only tiny or microscopic pieces of an organ to be retained.

In addition, since June 2010, relatives have been told if organs are kept for further study.

"This allows families to be involved in decision making about how an organ is treated after the medical examination has been concluded," Pollanen said.

The government said the current approach follows a review of the "ethical landscape" and practices elsewhere, such as in the U.K. and Australia.

"The ethical awareness associated with organ retention has progressed over time," Pollanen said. "We believe our current approach represents best practices."

Those who wish to make inquiries can call 1-855-564-4122 or email organretention@ontario.ca.