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Human remains backlog still in Newfoundland garage after months of outcry

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Opposition parties in Newfoundland and Labrador say they’re growing frustrated at the decision by health officials to move freezers of unclaimed human remains into an underground hospital parking garage.

The remains were moved within the past few weeks, and staff at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s have since erected a temporary wall in the underground garage that keeps the freezers out of public view.

“How they can come up and think that this is a great solution to a problem, I think that’s what caught everyone off-guard,” Barry Petten, a Progressive Conservative MHA, said on Thursday.

“This is like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Petten says he figured government and health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador would have ensured all the bodies inside the temporary freezers were given appropriate burials or funeral services — not shuffled into another location.

Prior to the move underground, the bodies were stored in freezer units in a receiving bay at the hospital complex.

According to Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services, the parking-garage construction is part of a larger development. It said the same area will become an expansion space for the morgue, a project that’s set to be completed in October.

Health officials haven’t said exactly how many people’s remains are in storage. Petten said he believes it’s ticked upwards slightly, from around 30 to 40.

Progressive Conservative MHA Barry Petten says the bodies must be moved to a more permanent location. (Garrett Barry, CTV News)

“If it comes down to inadequate financial compensation for funeral homes to complete the burials, or for families, then address that,” added Jim Dinn, the leader of the provincial NDP.

Both parties have called on the provincial government to increase the supplements they pay for families who cannot afford to bury their loved ones. Last April, Minister of Children, Seniors and Social Development Paul Pike said he was reviewing the rates.

The issue gained prominence in March, when government ministers said they first learned about the units and promised to find a solution.

While some politicians have been quick to blame the growing amount of unclaimed remains on the cost-of-living crisis and funeral expenses, hospital officials inside the Health Sciences Centre say they’re not sure what caused the backlog.

The issue is not contained to Newfoundland and Labrador. According to statistics compiled by Ontario’s Chief Coroner’s Office, the number of unclaimed remains in that province has doubled in the past four years.

In nearly a quarter of the cases, remains have gone unclaimed by next of kin due to financial reasons.

Ron Johnson, a vice-president at Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services, told CTV News his staff put together a team to proactively reach out to family members in an effort to arrange funerals or other services.

“We’re trying here, again, to do our best in doing right by the family,” he said Wednesday. “The big thing for us is that the descendants have a respectful burial.” 

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