The handling and transfer of the deceased in Ontario

by Rochelle Martin

Recently a Toronto coroner’s office refused to release the body of a deceased son to his parents, insisting that a funeral director had to pick up the body.  The family, forced to hire a funeral director in order to claim their son’s body, had to wait to bring his body home until a willing funeral home reopened after the weekend.

Additionally, this coroner’s office seemed preoccupied with the need for a “pick-up permit” – a form that funeral directors provide when they pick up a body.  Death midwifery advocates, knowing that families have the legal right to claim, transport, and care for their loved ones after death, initially considered how this “pick-up form” might be modified for families’ use.

However, in thinking this through, it suddenly became clear that funeral directors require this “pick up permit” to demonstrate to a coroner’s office or other health care facility that they have been given the right to claim the body, by the next of kin.  The next of kin, having primary rights to the body, does not require such a form.  The next of kin need only present the medical certificate of death, after it has been provided to them by a physician or coroner.

In Ontario, the next of kin may pick up the body of their deceased loved one from any coroner’s office or health care facility without a transport or burial permit.  While some provinces require a transport permit, or have regulations about the type of container and vehicle in which a dead body must be transported, Ontario does not.  The handling and transfer of human remains must be done in a dignified and respectful manner, but there are no specifications in Ontario law regarding particular containers, vehicles, or methods in which a body must be transported.

It is also important to note that coroners or health care facility personnel may not refuse the next of kin access to their loved one’s  body out of paternalistic concern for such things as “family wellbeing” or “protocol.”  Those who have concerns about a family’s ability to respectfully transport and care for the deceased have no recourse but to call the police, if they suspect nefarious intent.  Regardless of their thoughts, feelings, or opinions on the matter, they must release the body to the next of kin.

It is legal, in most provinces of Canada,* to care for our loved ones’ bodies ourselves, without a funeral director. (*Quebec has recently passed a law that may limit families’ rights – the implications of this law for family-directed after-death care are currently being explored.)  The fact that a funeral director might say we can’t, or a hospital or coroner’s office might balk at releasing a body to next of kin, or a city clerk’s office may never have had a family member fill out a statement of death form – none of these mean we can’t.  We must insist, perhaps suggesting that the onus is on them to consult their legal counsel, who will advise that they may not refuse.  A hospital or coroner’s office risks being sued, if they do not comply with the law and release a body to the next of kin.

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