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25th July 1999

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Morbid overcrowding of mortuary

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

Behind the closed doors of the Borella Police Mortuary, lie corpses piled on stretchers, examination tables and the floor. The stench is unbearable and nauseating, the sight, tragic.

The country's largest mortuary is today in trouble. Since 1989 when it was shifted from its previous location near the Borella cemetery, facilities have not improved, but rather worsened.

"We are facing a crisis and nobody's helping," said the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) of the mortuary, Dr. Alwis.

"We have seven freezers of which six can hold six bodies each and the other only four. At the moment, only one cooler is in working condition. For the last three to four months we have been sending SOS signals but to no avail. We are left with no option but to store the corpses on any available space," Dr. de Alwis explained.

The freezers and coolers are situated at the ambulance entrance of the mortuary, hidden from the public eye. That the seven freezers need urgent repair or replacing is evident. The doors are broken and rusty and drip liquid. The interiors are dark and dirty.

The coolers and cold rooms suffer from a similar fate. With the freezers in disrepair, authorities at the mortuary have been forced to stack the bodies in the cool rooms where post-mortems are conducted in order to prevent them from decomposing fast. So post-mortems are conducted amidst stacks of corpses.

The stench of decomposing bodies, along with the bacteria that feed on them have caused many problems for Alwis. Even a disinfectant clean up several times a day does not improve conditions.

"We are helpless. Government officials rarely bother to visit the mortuary. The public worry only about hospitals. With no assistance or attention, we are unable to keep up with the demand for mortuary facilities, which is from across the island," he said.

The problem arose a few months ago when the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) which handled the maintenance of the freezers and coolers refused to continue the task. When a request was made that this equipment be replaced, the CEB had sent a letter to the Health Department recommending that the freezers, etc were only ten years old and could be further utilized.

However, the CEB then handed over the maintenance of the equipment to United Electricals Company, who describing it as 'unserviceable' said that only one freezer is in working condition and the others need to be replaced immediately if the mortuary is to continue functioning. "But they too stopped maintenance work since they have not been paid for a few months. As a result, no maintenance is taking place at the moment and the coolers are still awaiting assessment," the JMO said.

"I wrote to the Department of Health requesting that the freezers be replaced and the cold rooms repaired but when they appealed to the Treasury for funds, the request was turned down," Dr. de Alwis said.

The reply he received stated that they hope to replace three of the seven freezers this year, the remaining four, the next year.

Health Department officials have proposed that the valuable aluminium of the freezers be auctioned. But Dr. de Alwis has put his foot down. He says that hoteliers would pay high prices for the aluminium to be made into kitchen utensils, but this is unacceptable since it has been used to store corpses.

Each cooler is estimated to cost Rs 2.5 million but a freezer only Rs 35,000. There are also gas leaks in the cold rooms that need urgent attention. If this is not done, the worst can happen and there will be a total breakdown soon, Dr. de Alwis warns.

"If I could get at least one of these freezers replaced till long term remedies are in place, I could handle the situation much better," the JMO said.

On an average, around 70 corpses are brought to the mortuary on a weekly basis, the majority of them being that of beggars, 'unidentified' and unclaimed. In addition exhumed bodies as well as those sent from the provincial magistrates for investigation, all remain stacked for days.

The broken equipment apart, the lack of co-operation and assistance by the municipal authorities and the police to mortuary officials is a sore point.

Municipal undertakers are expected to visit the mortuary at least once in ten days, to dispose of the unidentified corpses, but their appearances are rare. After the gravity of the situation had been explained to them recently, a few corpses had been taken away to be disposed of.

On the other hand, the police bring in the corpses of beggars but the pace of inquiries to identify them is slow. When The Sunday Times visited the mortuary last week there were twenty five unidentified bodies.

"We also have extra work because provincial doctors sometimes unnecessarily send in difficult post-mortem examinations even while having sufficient facilities in their hospitals," Dr. de Alwis said.

Bones from exhumed bodies are also brought in. Although the mortuary refuses to accept decomposed corpses for examination in most cases, the bones are difficult to refuse. They lie in gunny bags for weeks contributing to the stench and adding to Dr. de Alwis's worries.

Residents of the area too have complained to the JMO about the unbearable stench. "I admit that there is a stench when we open a body for examination, but there is very little that can be done on our part until the freezers and coolers are replaced," he said.

Residents say the unhygienic condition created by the mortuary needs to be looked into by environment authorities.

"Where are all the ministers, social workers and funds when you really need them?" questions the JMO in desperation.

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