London

Morgue trucks might be new but London's capacity issue isn't, say funeral directors

London region funeral directors say a lack of space to store the dead isn't a new problem and the virus has finally brought a long-standing capacity issue into the spotlight.

This is what it looks like when you don't have enough space to store bodies

A refrigerated trailer normally used to haul groceries sits in the loading dock at University Hospital in London, Ont., in January. Deaths from coronavirus have begun to overwhelm capacity in the city's morgues and officials have resorted to temporary contingency plans. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Morgue trucks might be new, but the London region's capacity to accommodate the dead isn't, according to two London region funeral directors with decades of experience. 

As the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the region, the mounting number of deaths has begun to severely tax the city's capacity to store its dead. 

On Tuesday, London, Ont. made national headlines after health officials implemented a contingency plan for the second time since the pandemic began by bringing in a portable morgue, a refrigerated trailer normally used to store groceries, now storing dead bodies at University Hospital.

"There's just not enough space," said Steve Masters, a funeral director who operates Masters Funeral Services in nearby Dorchester, Ont., who has seen the lack of space first-hand. 

"We've had to use the autopsy suites to place the deceased in until pathology takes care of it."

As of Tuesday, 108 people have died of the virus

Healthcare workers in Russia move a human body in this October 2020 photo. Since the pandemic began, many jurisdictions have imposed new rules with the twin goals of burying the dead quickly and preventing the virus from spreading. (Tolk Channel/Reuters)

As of Tuesday, 108 people had died from the virus in Middlesex County alone, but because London has a regional coroner's office, the problem doesn't end at the county line.

"That's the big issue. It's the regional morgue," said Joe O'Neil, a funeral director with O'Neil Funeral Home in London who's been caring for the dead for 38 years. 

"I can't say I've seen the trucks before, but in years past, usually around the Christmas season, which is the busiest time of the year for the funeral business, quite often the morgue would fill up."

"When we had the SARS issue back in 2003 many of us in the funeral industry were saying, 'look when the big one comes, this isn't going to be big enough. You guys really should be looking at something.'" 

With only 20 spaces or so inside University Hospital and another eight or nine at Victoria Hospital, O'Neil said London has likely never had the proper amount of space for the population it serves.

Last year, O'Neil put together a proposal to operate a private morgue in order to relieve capacity and store the extra bodies that often tax the system, but was told there was no money. 

"Care and capacity and caring for the deceased has never been something that's been a top priority for any political party, either in power or opposition."

"It doesn't grab headlines and it really doesn't get the public going until it's a problem like it is now." 

London's morgues aren't equipped to handle the obese

A refrigerated trailer (right) acts as a temporary morgue set up outside University Hospital in London, Ont., in January. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Before the pandemic, O'Neil said because Canada has no laws on when bodies should be buried, the dead would often sit unclaimed for months, taking up space in the city's cramped morgues. 

Since the pandemic, Ontario has decreed bodies must be picked up at hospitals within an hour or less and cemeteries must stay open 24/7 to get the dead buried quickly and keep the virus from spreading. 

O'Neil said while the virus solved one problem, it exposed another. 

"That morgue should have been built with capacity for 50 or 100," he said. "It was built for the needs of the day. There was no foresight, or forethought to what we would need 10 or 20 years in the future."

With only 20 spaces, the morgue at University Hospital is not just too small, it's antiquated and lacks equipment, such as bariatric lifts, to deal with the size of some bodies, O'Neil said. 

"Movement of the obese is a real hazard, a real danger in the funeral service," he said.  

"What's worse is the morgue at Victoria Hospital. It's just a room with a refrigeration unit. I think the capacity is just six or seven persons and they're just on the gurneys on tables. There's no lifts, there's no trays. There's no nothing." 

"When you have too many bodies in there, it's like playing a game of Tetris, you're trying to shuffle yourself around, there's no room in there." 

O'Neil hopes that if the pandemic does anything, it shows the province that Ontario's death system needs a major overhaul, not just for the dignity of the dead, but for the safety and health of those of us who are still living. 

He said he hopes it doesn't take another pandemic to teach us why taking care of the dead is so important. 

"As bad as this pandemic is, worse ones will come in the future and that's what we have to stop and look at right now. There are worse viruses out there and if they get loose we might look back at this and think 'boy we had it easy.'"

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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