Mortuary cooler stirs debate among officials

mstucka@macon.comJune 6, 2011 

Bibb County officials with three different agencies are trying to decide how to properly store human corpses.

The county has been paying $100 per day to store each body in a funeral home’s mortuary cooler, while county commissioners, the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office debate how -- or whether -- to rehabilitate or replace a cooler the county already owns.

When commissioners took over the former GBI crime lab next to the county jail, they got a mortuary cooler in poor condition with the property. But Sheriff Jerry Modena has resisted efforts to have his crime-scene technicians working near human bodies, and commissioners haven’t yet decided what to do.

During May’s budget hearings, commissioners heard of a plan to use a restaurant-type, walk-in cooler outside the county jail, which would cost about $2,500 and might save the county about $12,000 a year. It’s not clear when commissioners will decide, though.

Chief Deputy David Davis said the sheriff’s office and Coroner Leon Jones both like the idea of buying a restaurant refrigerator, then hooking it up to power and a backup generator at the jail. That might cost about $2,500, but rehabilitating the crime lab’s cooler would cost about the same amount but would also require a generator, which could cost $10,000 more, Davis said.

The coolers are used mostly on nights and weekends, when bodies cannot be taken to the new state crime lab in Macon or to the state crime lab in Atlanta. For at least three months, commissioners have been discussing what to do. Most of the talk involved rehabilitating the existing coolers. There are problems of maintaining dignity for the deceased, ensuring that power remains on, limiting smells and reducing costs.

It’s also important to maintain a proper chain of custody for the bodies and for other items in the crime lab, officials said. Modena said his crime lab cooler has been cleaned several times, but the smell remains.

“There’s no question that some of those bodies they bring in are going to be in tough shape, and those are the ones that concern me the most,” he said. “We know the smell would permeate through the crime lab.”

And there are other trying circumstances. County officials, for example, spent months working to identify a man who had been brought to a Macon hospital. While the man’s body spent months in Atlanta, county taxpayers picked up the tab to keep the body in a funeral home cooler for weeks more. If the outside cooler is selected, the sheriff’s office would help install it and would pay for electricity costs.

The cooler would also be monitored by security cameras, and officials in the coroner’s office would be able to control access to the cooler.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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