Full morgues at Ottawa hospitals mean bodies kept in conference rooms, says union

Morgues at two Ottawa Hospital locations are full, resulting in some bodies being stored in unexpected places, including conference rooms, patient rooms and parts of the emergency department, according to the local health-care workers union.

Hospital says it's working to reduce capacity issues 'as quickly as possible and with the greatest of care'

The Ottawa Hospital says it is working to resolve capacity issues at two of its morgues. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Morgues at two Ottawa Hospital locations are full, resulting in some bodies being stored in unexpected places, including conference rooms, patient rooms and parts of the emergency department, according to the local health-care workers union.

Housekeepers and other staff have been startled to walk into unrefrigerated rooms and find deceased covered up, said Lou Burri, president of CUPE Local 4000.

"Smell is becoming a problem," said Burri, who represents clerical service and support workers, including registered practical nurses, patient care assistants, housekeepers, orderlies, tradespeople and secretaries.

He said his members have told him some bodies were being kept in hazmat rooms, usually reserved to respond to chemical accidents.

"In the beginning of December, it was pretty cold in Ottawa, so they would leave the doors open to keep the room refrigerated. Makeshift refrigeration, if you like, " said Burri.

He said his members have also told him bodies were being kept in patient rooms.

Capacity concerns at Ottawa morgue leads to bodies being stored in unexpected places 0:30

The morgue capacity issues at the Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus were first reported to the union at the beginning of December and were soon followed by reports of similar problems at the General campus.

"I don't understand why it is happening," Burri said. 

"[Members] definitely want something done about it. It's not something that they're used to seeing when they walk into a room. They're not very happy about it for sure."

Why complaints are starting to pile up from workers at the Ottawa Hospital who've found dead bodies where they did not expect them. 9:16

'Temporary spaces'

The Ottawa Hospital says while deceased bodies have been stored outside of morgues, it disputes the claim that they were placed in conference and patient rooms.

"During an extraordinary period in December, it was necessary to place deceased individuals outside of the designated morgue, in a secure room, for a short period of time," spokesperson Michaela Schreiter said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. 

"The Ottawa Hospital has converted spaces, formerly used for autopsies, within the morgue to manage unexpected surges in demand. Conference rooms and ward beds are not used for housing deceased individuals."

CBC News made multiple attempts to have the hospital clarify whether that meant deceased bodies had ever been stored in conference rooms, but the hospital declined to comment further.

In a previous statement to CBC News, the hospital said it has space for 27 bodies in its General hospital's morgue and seven at its Civic hospital, with former autopsy rooms at the Civic being converted to morgue spaces since autopsies now happen elsewhere.

Deceased may need "to be taken care of in temporary spaces that respect the requirements for dignity and procedure" when "capacity at these morgues is reached," it said.

When asked why the morgues are over capacity, and where the temporary spaces are located, the hospital did not respond directly.

It did say that any adult who dies in eastern Ontario and requires an autopsy is brought to the Ottawa Hospital, and kept there until the procedure is complete.

In some cases, a person dies with no next of kin to claim their body. If that happens, the body can be kept at the hospital for "several weeks or months" until authorization for burial is obtained, the statement says.

Concern for how bodies are cared for

The capacity issues facing the morgues at the Ottawa Hospital aren't surprising and are happening across the province, according to Scott Miller, general manager of Hulse, Playfair and McGarry Funeral Home. 

"In Ontario, the hospitals themselves were never built to hold a lot of bodies ... And we worry a little bit about what's being done, and how the bodies are being cared for," said Miller, who also sits on an advisory committee for the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, which regulates licensed funeral establishments. 

Scott Miller of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry Funeral Home says hospital morgues were never designed to accommodate a lot of bodies at once. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Miller said cities such as Ottawa should have a central morgue where hospitals can take their deceased if they run out of room.

He also said most large funeral homes have morgue facilities where hospitals could store bodies awaiting autopsy.

Miller said families are taking longer nowadays to make decisions about funerals and other arrangements, leaving hospitals to keep bodies for longer.

"In the past, it was very straightforward. [Families] knew where they wanted to go and they knew what they wanted to have," said Miller.

"Today, there are so many different choices. People have moved away from faith-based funerals, to more celebratory-type arrangements, and they're thinking, 'Well, we ought to talk with everybody in the family, make a decision [about] what we're going to do.'"

About the Author

Hillary Johnstone is a reporter for CBC Ottawa. You can reach her by email