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More and more bodies unclaimed in Quebec

McGill Anatomy students using cadavers as educational tools

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More Quebeckers than ever are dying with no one to claim their bodies. With the elderly the most common among them, many of the deceased eventually find their way to educational institutions such as McGill, where they are appreciated in a different sense: for their help as educational tools.

In 2010, 424 bodies – approximately 0.74 per cent of total deaths – were left in the custody of the Quebec government. This is an increase of 124 bodies – approximately 0.56 per cent of total deaths – from 2000.

Genevieve Guilbault, spokesperson for the Quebec Coroner’s Office, said “we think the reason why we have more unclaimed bodies than before is most of all because more and more people grow old and die alone without anybody that takes care of them.”

This is in keeping with what Sandra Miller, a professor in McGill’s Anatomy and Cell Biology Department, told Le Délit in November 2009.

“Usually the deceased persons are elderly, Francophone, Catholic, and come from the middle class,” said Miller.

Guilbault also said that “immigrants, people that come from other countries, sometimes come alone and it becomes more difficult for us to find family.”

There are also cases in which those close to the deceased are aware of their death, but do not wish to take responsibility for them. Guilbault cited funeral costs as a factor. Those outside of the close family must assume all responsibility for these costs – which commonly start at $1,500 – if they wish to claim a body.

Of the 424 bodies unclaimed in 2010, 58 were taken to the Quebec Coroner’s office due to the violent or accidental nature of their death, while the remainder, when authorized by a physician, were made available to educational institutions like McGill. The institutions are then, by law, financially responsible for the transportation of the cadavers to their facilities.

Subsequently, the bodies must undergo a preservation process involving the injection of chemicals. After this, Miller explained to Le Délit,  “the students find themselves face to face with real human beings having all kinds of abnormalities, and this in 3-D.”

As stipulated in the Revised Statutes of Quebec, Chapter L-0.2, “An Act respecting medical laboratories, organ, tissue, gamete and embryo conservation, and the disposal of human bodies,” educational institutions are required to send a report on each body to the physician in charge of that region, including not only information about the deceased but also the name of each educational institution to which the body was offered or transported. This way, the fate of the deceased may be made known to any family in the future.

As for the bodies not suitable for scientific purposes, Guilbault explains that they must be kept by law for a minimum of thirty days after their discovery while the police search for next of kin. If, after this period, no claim has been made to the body, it is buried in a precisely marked graves so that it is easily identifiable for anyone who comes looking.