Tue | Jan 25, 2022

Mislabelling deaths at home

Published:Monday | July 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Garth A. Rattray

The recent news story that Jamaica needs public mortuaries but enlists the services of 14 private undertakers across the island reminds me of an experience that I had.

After many months of suffering, seeing teams of doctors undergoing batteries of investigations, of being subjected to invasive tests and of slow decline, her time had finally and mercifully come. The family matriarch exhaled for the last time at home, in her own bed under the watchful, distraught and tearful eyes of her children.

She had become the head of this tightly knit family when her husband passed away many years before. She was their mother, their teacher, their strength, their support, their last remaining link to their lineage. Now, it all fell to them to step up and fill her shoes. So, they came unbridled, the deluge of childhood memories, the flood of emotions, the recollection of a storm of events that led up to her passing.

The pain won't subside for many years but now it was time to be strong, time to make the final arrangements, time to make the calls, time to have the chosen undertakers treat their mother with gentleness and respect. Time to put her to rest just the way she wanted it.

death confirmation

By now I was there. I confirmed that she had passed, advised the children of the next move - call the police. We waited in silence for them to arrive. They did. The more senior policeman entered calmly and scanned the house as he made his way into the bedroom where the body lay untouched. He scrutinised the surroundings then quizzed us all as he ascertained our identities and reasons for being there. He made notes and inspected the body superficially. Good job, I thought.

But then, when he was told that the chosen undertakers were about to be called, things went sideways. Although I explained that she had been my patient for many years, that she had died from a malignancy and that I had examined her body and pronounced her dead, he insisted that her body must be removed by an undertaker chosen from the Government list, that her body must be taken to the nearby hospital to be pronounced dead by a doctor on duty and then taken away for storage.

He went on to say that her body will probably be autopsied. When the relatives got the necessary paperwork they could then transfer her body elsewhere (after paying for storage and transport) or leave it there for final arrangements. Now, her loved ones were experiencing dismay and frustration on top of grief.


However, none of what the policeman said was accurate. Patients who have been seeing a doctor regularly, are terminally ill and die at home only need the police to confirm the absence of foul play. After that, the remains may be taken straight to whatever mortuary the family chooses. In that situation, the remains do not have to be examined by any physician or autopsied. The next step is to get the death certificate from the doctor(s) involved in the patient's care.

The policemen kept referring to her passing as a "sudden death". That was also inaccurate. People dying from terminal diseases or who have illnesses that may lead to death at any time do not die suddenly and their bodies need not be put through the rigours of unexpected or suspicious deaths (autopsies and/or inquiries).

I thought that the particular policeman was uninformed but people claim that some cops are in 'business' with some undertakers. I managed to make a call to a senior police officer who confirmed that the policeman was incorrect in what he told us.

The Government needs to publicise the proper procedure for when someone dies at home. Many unfortunate families go through hell because of situations just like this one.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com