TORONTO -- Bodies are being kept in conference rooms at Ottawa’s biggest hospital due to overcrowded morgues, according to a union leader.

The Ottawa Hospital denies the claim, but admits the morgue has exceeded capacity at times.

Lou Burri, president of CUPE Local 4000, told The Canadian Press it first happened last October but has become a continuing problem as the hospital's infrastructure is stretched further beyond capacity.

"I've been talking to senior management at the Ottawa Hospital and they're not happy that this is going on. They don't have the money to do anything -- it's all funding, everything's funding," Burri said.

"It is a black eye for the Ottawa Hospital, for sure. They strive on being health care leaders and it's unfortunate this is happening, but maybe this will light a fire on trying to get some stuff resolved for them."

“We can’t just have bodies lying around. It's not acceptable,” Burri told CTV News Ottawa. “We are health-care workers and we see lots of different things but when you walk into a conference room you’re not prepared to see a body there.”

Burri, who represents workers from the hospital’s civic and general campuses, said there were even rumours of smells coming from one of the rooms.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, representatives from Ottawa Hospital disputed the union’s claim that conference rooms were being used but did admit to overcrowding in its morgue.

“During an extraordinary period in December, it was necessary to place deceased individuals outside of the designated morgue, in a secure room, for a short period of time,” it read.

“The Ottawa Hospital has converted spaces, formerly used for autopsies, within the morgue to manage unexpected surges in demand. Conference rooms and ward beds are not used for housing deceased individuals,” the statement continued.

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care told CTV Ottawa they’re currently monitoring the situation of morgue capacity in the city.

Ottawa's hospitals conduct autopsies on many people who die in and around the region, and bodies can sit for weeks or longer before they are claimed.

Scott Miller, general manager of Hulse, Playfair and McGarry Funeral Home, told CTV News Channel that in cases where the deceased is unidentified or unclaimed, hospitals have stored remains for up to 90 days before burial or cremation.

He said he had seen the overcrowding problem before and that it happens “periodically throughout the year.”

“In Ontario the Funeral Service Act requires that we have proper holding facilities for remains,” he said.

“When a hospital’s forced to use a conference room or some other type of storage facility, it really isn’t appropriate. For the dignity of the deceased person, it needs to be in a proper holding facility and that should have refrigeration.

“Last year we ran into situations similar to this around this time of year, with influenza and other things the hospitals just don’t have morgues built to handle an influx of death.”

Ontario's chief coroner reported in June that there were 473 unclaimed bodies in 2018, an increase from the 401 in 2017 that the office attributed to better figures from a centralized tracking system. Figures for 2019 are not yet available.

“They (hospitals) don’t have enough space to store the remains until such time as the family makes the decision to choose the funeral home or decides the type of service they want to have,” Miller explained.

The claiming process can take longer if an autopsy is required or a body is brought in from the surrounding community.

"Usually people claim -- the families and others claim the body soon after the autopsy is completed," said Dr. Louise McNaughton-Filion, the regional supervising coroner in Ottawa.

"And there is the other group where somebody passes away in the community and the body has to be stored until family is found, or next-of-kin is found."

A difficult search for a next-of-kin involves police and checks of financial records required under provincial law.

In the meantime, the unclaimed bodies take up space for cadavers that are already in the hospital and waiting to be brought down to the morgue.

“Some type of central morgue facility is probably required,” Miller suggested.

“The hospitals can get together with and share the use of that facility in times when this occurs and other institutions would probably take advantage of such a morgue facility, like long term care facilities that don’t have morgues themselves.”

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV News Ottawa