In the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH), Central, a corpse which was brought in seven months ago lies unclaimed even today; another such has been at the Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital (KMCH) since December 2019. These are not isolated cases. Major government hospitals in Chennai are struggling to tackle the pressure of unclaimed dead bodies in their mortuaries.
“The situation is concerning because the unclaimed bodies are taking up the capacity of the mortuary. Our morgue has the capacity to hold 60 corpses,” said a doctor at the Dean’s office in Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH). The KMCH can accommodate 48 bodies. It has become a regular task for the heads of these hospitals to pursue the issue with the police department through the nodal agency, the Directorate of Medical Education (DME), as the morgues begin to near full capacity.
Doctors say that the fault is not of the institution, as they are just the custodians; but of the police force who are entrusted with the responsibility to dispose of these bodies. But why this delay in resolution of these cases and what can these hospitals do in the face of such a situation?
When an unclaimed body is identified
According to the Government Order 1676, dated September 22 1984, whenever a dead body has not been identified, the police should immediately take fingerprints and photographs and publish a notice in newspapers inviting relatives to take possession of the body.
Even though the law mandates a police official to locate the family members or relatives of the deceased within three days of registering the case, the time period is extended in most cases. “If a family member turns up after the body has been cremated, we will be held responsible; so we take time to investigate. We take at least fifteen days to locate the family,” said a police personnel, on condition of anonymity.
Government hospitals submit a report every month to the Commissioner of Police with data on the number of unclaimed corpses and the duration of storage for each. One police official is usually deployed to follow-up on the cases. “If there is no claimant, the cop has to arrange for burial by requesting the Greater Chennai Corporation to allot space in the cremation ground. They should maintain the records properly, so as to be able to locate and exhume the body if any criminal case linked to it crops up in later years,” said the doctor added.
Sources of unclaimed bodies
A majority of unclaimed bodies are categorised under medico-legal cases, which means that death has been due to an injury or ailment, and investigation from the police department is needed to draw a conclusion on the cause of the injury or ailment. The time period for closure of such cases varies from one to another.
Such cases include, among others,
Besides this, the hospitals also have non-medico legal cases where death is due to natural causes and does not require a police investigation. Such incidents are reported to the resident medical officer (RMO), who conducts an inquiry to hand over the remains to a family member. If no relative can be traced, the body is used for educational purposes. Through the DME, other hospitals can request corpses for purposes of research/education. Private hospitals are required to pay a sum for the same.
Robbing the dead of dignity
But what happens if the search for the family yields no results? They literally rot in the mortuaries.
Ideally, the police should submit a requisition letter to the hospital to conduct an autopsy within three days of the case registration, because the air-conditioning or deep-freezing facility in the mortuary can preserve a corpse only for a maximum of ten days. “It is understandable if they delay it for ten days, considering the challenges. But the dead are robbed of all dignity as the bodies are allowed to rot in the dingy mortuaries for months,” said a doctor from a reputed government hospital.
Bodies in the mortuaries are preserved by maintaining a temperature between 1 and 4 degrees Celsius for a few days. If the body already begins to decompose even before bringing it to the mortuary, the condition cannot be reversed, but can just be preserved. When a corpse is stored for a long time, it begins to decompose and evidence such as marks on the body and fingerprint are lost, making any probe futile.
Experts also warn about the possible health hazards that people face, when unclaimed corpses are stored for a long period of time. “People working in and visiting the mortuary suffer serious health risks. Then, there is the problem of stench, which spreads to other wards nearby. Flying maggots on one decomposed body can also damage the other corpses in the morgue,” the doctor said.
Small steps could go a long way
There are some measures that could help ease the situation. Doctors, for example, strongly recommend having a photographic display board outside the morgue for ease of identification. “A person cannot see every single corpse in the mortuary, identify marks and claim ownership. So, a display board is necessary. A record is maintained by the in-charge, but it is insufficient. Relatives can easily identify bodies if we display the photograph on the notice board,” the government doctor said.
The medical community also calls for easier laws and procedures for using unclaimed bodies for research. “There is a huge demand for corpses in medical colleges. Once it is proved that unclaimed bodies have no medico-legal background, these should be easily available for research purposes. Most developments in the field of healthcare have come about from research conducted on the dead body,” said Dr G R Ravindranth, general secretary, Doctor’s Association for Social Equality.
The police department presently uses the services of non-governmental organisations to help with the cremation process. Uravugal Trust, Anatha Pretha Kainkarya Trust (APKT), and Jeevathma Kainkarya Trust are a few of the NGOs in Chennai that arranges final farewells for unattended corpses.
The NGOs usually receive information from the police department on the unclaimed bodies. An FIR is then filed by the police officers and a document permitting the burial of the orphaned body is signed by the doctors of government hospitals. The trusts depute coordinators to complete procedural formalities –such as getting the forms filled and other such tasks in government hospitals. “We are self-sufficient in terms of funds. We either pool in money ourselves or philanthropists donate for the cause,” S Sreedhar, founder of APKT, said.