Families hurt and upset over new procedures for coping with deaths

Published: 23 Aug 2012 13:001 comment

A man lies undressed in the bathroom after taking a massive heart attack and passing away. A woman lies outside in the rain after dying suddenly. Another man collapses and dies in a house full of children. But their bodies aren't collected and brought to the mortuary for hours after their deaths and neither their families nor local undertaker are allowed to go near them in the meantime either.

Gary Beckett with a picture of his mum Carol.

A man lies undressed in the bathroom after taking a massive heart attack and passing away. A woman lies outside in the rain after dying suddenly. Another man collapses and dies in a house full of children. But their bodies aren't collected and brought to the mortuary for hours after their deaths and neither their families nor local undertaker are allowed to go near them in the meantime either.

That's what has been happening in Fermanagh over the last eight months as bodies of people who die unexpectedly - from whatever it may be; such as a stroke, a heart-attack, a fall, suicide or even murder -- are no longer being collected and brought to the state mortuary in Belfast by local undertakers. Instead a funeral undertaker based in Lurgan must travel to the county, a lengthy process that given the distance can sometimes take several hours.

This means the body of a loved one wherever they have died; be it in the living room, in the front garden, in the main street, or even in church, must remain in place until the appointed undertaker has arrived however long that takes; in some cases, we are told this has taken up to five hours.

The family undertaker or GP can't move the body, and neither can the police who must remain with the deceased until they are permitted to stand down. Once the post-mortem is carried out, if it is needed at all, the family undertaker must then make the journey to Belfast in order to return the body to the family so they can make funeral arrangements, sometimes a day later than usual.

The Impartial Reporter has discovered that the process is causing significant concern for grief-stricken families here with many only learning of the procedure at their time of loss.

The son of a woman whose dead body was left lying in her Enniskillen home for over three hours before it was collected and taken away has spoken this week of his "shock and anger" at the delay.

60-year-old Carol Beckett died in January but when her family contacted their local undertaker, who lived minutes away, he told them he was powerless and couldn't do anything because of the change to the system, which first came into effect at the start of this year.

Footballer Gary Beckett, who plays for Enniskillen Town United, has described the length of time it took to collect his mother's body as "upsetting" and added: "It's not something that you can forget".

"She was lying there with a blanket over her face while we waited for the undertaker from Lurgan to arrive. Neighbours were calling with us and coming in and she was lying in the living room. It wasn't dignified; it was degrading. I can't understand why our local undertaker, our trusted family undertaker, wasn't allowed to sort it out for us. Instead, we had to wait for three hours then two strangers came down to take her body away," he said.

Carol's brother Clive said he was "disgusted" to learn that his sister's body had to remain in place.

"This, as you can imagine, was a very sad and stressful time for the family. We were sitting in the house and she was lying in the position that we found her in. I can not tell you how heart-breaking it was to see my sister lying there for those three hours and how hard it was for her sons; Gary and Keith, and the neighbours. Why can't we use the local undertaker for this? Nobody can understand this; young people, elderly people, anybody that came into the house and saw my sister in the state she was in were totally shocked," he said.

In another case, even a local undertaker wasn't allowed to remove the body of his close family member and instead had to wait until the official undertaker carried out its duties.

This process was introduced following a tendering process carried out by the Department of Justice under the guidance of Minister David Ford. It awarded Malcolmson's Funeral Directors in Lurgan with the two-year contract to take bodies to the Forensic State Mortuary in Belfast from the 'F District', covering the Fermanagh, Cookstown and Dungannon areas.

At the time of going to Press, no statement had been received from the Coroner's Office after a request had been made for one.

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