Illustration by Rubber House
Australia’s Northern Territory is huge, sparsely populated, poor, and crawling with deadly animals. It’s not surprising, then, that it doesn’t attract many professional types. Types like, say, people who are good at managing morgues. As a result, the territory’s dead-body storage system is a mess. The morgues are staffed primarily by volunteers, and no agency is specifically in charge of them.
This is a problem, to put it mildly. An inquiry led last year by Northern Territory Ombudsman Carolyn Richards uncovered a host of horrible practices, like a body that got put in a courtroom when there wasn’t space for it elsewhere, and a corpse stored in a doctor’s kitchen for a week while he was away. Things haven’t gotten better since then, and in the past few months, the bodies of two Aborigines were placed in the wrong graves—an especially big deal because in that culture, being buried with your clan on tribal land is of the utmost importance. The bodies were reportedly exhumed and reburied, but the families never received an official apology.
Also still waiting on a “We’re sorry” from the well-meaning but undertrained—or incompetent—morgue workers is the family of Charlton James, who committed suicide in 2011. Charlton’s body was taken to a morgue in the town of Kalkaringi, but after a power failure, the refrigeration system went down and his corpse was left to rot in the Outback heat. By the time his mother went to view the body, it was so badly decomposed that she couldn’t recognize him.
Since releasing her report, Ombudsman Richards has retired and handed the issue over to the territory’s health minister, Robyn Lambley. When I called her office, I was told the morgues were being headed up by the local minister, Bess Price. After I asked her office what was being done about the morgue mess, they replied with a statement:
“The safe and appropriate handling of deceased persons in remote areas is particularly challenging in the Northern Territory given the population spread over the Territory’s 1,349,000 square kilometers.”
No kidding. They added that the territory government was “presently considering advice in relation to morgue services in remote areas,” which gets to the root of the problem—it’s difficult and expensive to provide services to people living far out in the bush. Even if there were enough money to train and pay morgue attendants and technicians, it’s not a job a lot of people want, especially professionals with degrees and licenses. As Richards told the NT News, “It is difficult enough to entice professionals to work in remote locations without storing dead people in their homes.”
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