A professor who studies the sociology of dying says a CBC News video of a body being dragged on the floor of a trailer shows the “culture of respect” for the dead he had witnessed at Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) may no longer exist.
“That is terrible,” Herb Northcott of the University of Alberta said as he watched the video Wednesday.
“There is no need for this and this is unconscionable. It suggests the office is underfunded and understaffed. Because there is a long history of a culture of care, and there is no reason for that to be compromised.”
As CBC News revealed Wednesday, the OCME recently took the unusual step of renting a refrigerated trailer in response to a sudden influx of bodies that overwhelmed the Edmonton facility’s storage capacity.
On Monday, CBC News recorded video of a funeral home employee dragging a dead person in a body bag from the trailer, parked in a lot behind the OCME building off Belgravia Road in south Edmonton.
Warning: Some viewers may find this video disturbing
Seventeen bodies, sheathed in white bags, lined the floor of the refrigerated semi-trailer. The funeral home employee grabbed the foot end of one body bag with both hands and dragged the body on its back about half the trailer’s length before tugging it onto an elevated gurney.
The rear of the trailer, and the bodies inside, were in clear view from the street. A privacy screen has now been erected and a ramp has been installed.
Ministry apologizes to families
An Alberta Justice spokesperson told CBC News the ministry has launched an investigation into the incident, and in a statement, the ministry apologized.
“First and foremost, we extend our apologies to all families who entrust their loved ones to us,” the statement said. “The importance of your loved one is why their dignified and respectful treatment is so important to us, and why multiple steps are being taken to ensure this treatment is provided to every deceased person in our care.”
Northcott teaches a course in the sociology of death and bereavement. For years, as part of the course, he took students on tours of the OCME. He said the students’ tour guide, a medical examiner, “always portrayed the culture of that place as dignified, caring, compassionate, and careful.
“He was very careful not to put my class, my students, in a position where there might be a potential for disrespecting the dead,” Northcott continued. “The dead were treated with utmost dignity and respect.”
Staff complaints dismissed
In an internal OCME email obtained by CBC News, a staff member told the chief medical examiner, Dr. Elizabeth Brooks-Lim, that the storage of bodies on the floor of a trailer might not be acceptable to families, and she wondered what she should tell them.
Brooks-Lim responded: “The floor is clean, the bodies will be in body bags and the families do not need to be informed of the storage procedures.”
Northcott, however, said “the families have a right to know how their family members are being treated.”
Refrigerated trucks are “necessary if there is a disaster with mass casualties,” but this was an “everyday” situation involving a storage problem, he said.
The Opposition NDP says the Alberta government needs to investigate and tell the public how this was allowed to happen.
“Who authorized this decision?” NDP health critic David Shepherd asked. “Why did they not listen to the concerns that were raised by staff in the office that this would be something that would be considered a real indignity by families and other people involved in the system?”
Shepherd also called on the government of Premier Jason Kenney to, if necessary, increase funding to ensure the dead in Alberta are never again treated this way.
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