Few of us think about how our bodies will be dealt with when we pass on. We assume that after dying peacefully in our sleep at home or much less so in a car-wreck that our mortal remains will be treated respectfully between the time of our death and when we are flung into that final fire or laid in the ground for the worms.

This is true for how most people in the Northern Territory will meet their maker, particularly those who live in cities and larger towns.

But it can be a very different situation in many remote — particularly remote Aboriginal — townships in the NT.

The pictures above are taken from the cover of a comprehensive 2012 report by then NT Ombudsman Carolyn Richards into the management of morgues in remote townships in the NT and illustrate the very basic standards of morgue services in those townships.

Carolyn Richards’ report is a comprehensive and very sorry tale of government and bureaucratic duck-shoving and buck-passing.

She began by asking herself this basic question.

 When a person dies on a remote community, what process, polices and systems exist to ensure that the deceased is handled appropriately?

Among the several morgue horror-stories from remote service providers and workers the Ombudsman noted was this from a local NT Police Commander.

… a body was stored in a shed at the rear of the clinic, the shed has no A/C but was the only option at the time and was not looked favourably upon by the clinic, however the corpse was decomposing and smelt too much to put in the clinic or at any other location …

I know that once a body was stored temporarily in the Timber Creek Court room – This was due to multiple other persons being injured in the motor vehicle crash and there was little/no time for people to stand around and argue about where the body would be stored.

The Ombudsman summed up her concerns — and barely concealed frustrations — with the failure to address long-standing concerns expressed by residents and staff dealing with these issues:

The result of this investigation confirms that there is no ‘appropriate NT Government Department’ to whom responsibility and resources for the establishment, maintenance and management of morgues rests.

This report … is a chronicle of the state of morgues, the consequences to families of deceased persons caused by inadequate access to a morgue; the consequences for Police, health staff, council employees, Land Council employees; to the ability of the Coroner to perform his functions and of the economic consequences of the lack of morgues.

Notwithstanding the dramatic and urgent issues raised by the Ombudsman in 2012, it appears that not much progress has been made in the last two years.

In his recently released Annual Report the current Ombudsman, Peter Shoyer noted that:

Eight recommendations were made by the Ombudsman [in 2012]. Our Office has followed up with the Northern Territory Government on a regular basis to establish what progress has been made.

The most recent update received is from the Chief Executive of the Department of Community Services who advised by letter dated 8 September 2014:

In January this year we completed a comprehensive audit of morgue infrastructure in 17 remote communities. This gave us an independent assessment of the scope and cost of works required to restore the functionality of remote community morgues and provide for their ongoing maintenance.

The Department has also reviewed earlier business modelling undertaken by the Department of Business to determine the potential for developing funeral service enterprises in remote communities. Since the modelling was carried out in 2011 there have been no significant changes in death and burial data, and it is our view that a locally based funeral business is still not viable in any remote NT community.

Options for improving the management of remote morgues have been investigated. Following targeted consultation with regional councils, community residents, funeral industry businesses, health services, land councils and other NGOs, the Department has explored key stakeholder recommendations on the most appropriate and workable remote morgue management arrangements for the Northern Territory.

More effective approaches to remote morgue service provision have also been identified through our research into current body storage and body handling arrangements in comparable regions of 3 other Australian jurisdictions. The bulk of this work was carried out under the guidance of an interagency working group. With their input, the Department has prepared advice on remote morgues policy options and presented this in a report to Government who are still considering the best policy options for future morgue management.

This issue has not resolved itself or dissipated with the course of time. In the absence of clear direction and governance from the Northern Territory Government, the potential for deep personal anguish remains.

This is evidenced by media reports in 2014 of a terrible situation in Wadeye where a man’s body was mistakenly swapped with the body of a young woman. The error was only discovered at the time of the man’s funeral:

“We thought it was my brother, opened the body bag and I saw a different face. A woman’s body. Then I closed it up and put the body bag back in the freezer and we came out and stopped the funeral.”1

Ombudsman Shoyer’s understated response to this matter speaks volumes.

The need for a concrete strategy to deal with this issue remains pressing.

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1. Quoted in H Hollis, “Body swapped in morgue: anguished remote communities call for action” SBS online, 12 May 2014.

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Links and media reports

Jano Gibson, ABC News, August 2013. Family demands apology over body that decomposed in morgue after refrigeration failure.

Channel 9 News, Darwin, August 2013. Wrong body buried by “bush morgue.

News.com.au, January 2010. Morgue full, family left with body for three days.

Vice.com, November 2013. This Is Why You Wouldn’t Want Your Body to End Up In One of Australia’s Volunteer-Run Morgues.

OmbudsmanNT, Thirty-Sixth Annual Report, 2013/14 (from page 14).

Ombudsman NT, March 2012. Investigation Report Into Morgue Management On Remote Communities In The Northern Territory.