Preparing the dead for burial to become easier on families
Families of people who die in the Nome area will no longer have to take potluck on the condition of the city’s morgue when they need to prepare the loved one for burial.
Norton Sound Health Corp. and the City of Nome have worked it out for people to prepare bodies in a selected place at the Norton Sound Regional Hospital where there is running water, even if the person did not die in the hospital. Then they will go to the city’s morgue.
People have long complained that the morgue at Nome Municipal Cemetery does not have running water for washing the bodies before dressing them. The facility does not get good grades in other areas. The morgue lacks updated supplies and regular trash pickup. Some complain that the facility is dirty and stinks.
Relatives of a recently deceased Nome resident made such complaints. They felt bad that their loved one had been pronounced dead and taken to the morgue not in the ambulance, but in a Nome Police Dept. pickup truck. Ambulance responders left a tube in the person’s body.
Many people, Tom Moran, city manager, said, could make these complaints. “This is standard procedure that was followed,” he said. “The ambulance does not transport bodies of people who have been pronounced dead at the scene outside the hospital. The remains are taken to the morgue by the Community Services Officer’s vehicle or another transportation,” Moran said.
“Intubation cannot be removed until the state Medical Examiner says no autopsy will be required,” Moran added. “It has to be left in place until then.”
Additionally, there may be water available at the morgue in the future, Moran said. Currently, people have to take water to the morgue in containers or use wet wipes.
The City has plans to install a 500-gallon water reservoir and a gray water holding tank, according to Moran.
John K. Handeland, the city’s utility director, also said Monday that a water tank could be in the offing.
Both Handeland and Moran say that the city cannot afford to run piped water to the morgue that sits on the uphill side of Seppala Drive opposite Belmont Point. Usage is light. Piping in water and sewer would be over $100,000, Handeland said.
Indeed, Christine Schultz, head of social services at NSHC and a member of the city’s ad-hoc cemetery committee said the same. The region averages 69 deaths per year—about six deaths per month —and some of these occur in villages, according to Schultz, who often helps families get through the bereavement process, even cleaning and dressing the bodies in some cases. She did so in the recent case of Roberta Rodin.
Aside from costs, impediments stand in the way of plumbing the morgue with sewer and water, according to Handeland.
Water could be brought in, according to Handeland, but the building is not heated, being set up for refrigeration of corpses until the spring softens the ground for digging graves. Even trucked water for a tank reservoir would require heat throughout the long freezing winter.
The building would need upgrades for water, including a way to maintain the heating.
“We’ve looked at various options to add water, and have devised a plan to make that happen,” Handeland said.
“In my mind, do we use $100,000 to upgrade for limited use or do we continue the existing practice of bringing supplies to the site to provide the desired cleansing?” Handeland wondered. “We do want everyone to be treated with dignity and respect that everyone deserves.”
Adding a sewer line is more problematic he said. “Pumping gray water with body fluids out onto the ground is not acceptable,” he added. Because of the configuration of the building and freezer units to keep bodies until spring burial, placement of a traditional water holding tank does present challenges. Compressors and stairs take up additional space.
Underground services between the morgue and the Snake River encumbers the south side of the property for allowing water and sewer placement, Handeland said. The new Snake River Bridge construction needed services to be placed underground.
“In bigger cities there are mortuary services. In small villages, the families, local corporations or churches take care of deaths,” Handeland said. “We’re right in the middle.”
In Nome, families, friends and neighbors help out. The VFW helps to take care of veterans. Hospital social services staff helps also. Responsibility for digging graves rests on the families.
Some remains are handled efficiently. Some families prepare the body, have the service and leave the body in the morgue freezer.
“They are finished with it. Folks pass on who have no families or resources,” Handeland commented. “Dying is not cheap.”
However, with water available at a consistently clean morgue, a more comfortable place at the hospital to make remains ready for burial, and an organized network of volunteers, the sad event could go more easily for families.
As it is, the Nome Police Dept., the city’s public works department and others all have a part in the process, but no one specifically has the job, Schultz observed.
The volunteer ad-hoc cemetery committee has taken on the job to groom, upgrade and improve the community’s burial ground.