Family cremates wrong body

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am

Hospital chief apologises for mortuary mix-up

A mortuary mix-up has led a grieving family to cremate the wrong body, the third such case in recent years and the second in little more than a year.

The blunder was discovered yesterday when the family of an 88-year-old man went to collect his body from Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, only to find it had already been cremated by another, unrelated family.

The body had been placed in the same compartment as that of a 77-year-old man and had been collected by an elderly woman on March 29, the hospital said.

Hospital chief executive Fung Hong said the woman did look at the body, but admitted that the staff had not strictly followed every step to confirm the identity. The two men, who died of natural causes, had similar names, which were listed on the compartment.

A staff member responsible for the mix-up has been suspended and the hospital has promised the results of an inquiry within a month.

The wrong cremation mirrors similar blunders on March 7 last year and in January 2000 and follows a series of other mortuary mix-ups last year.

Police confirmed that a 51-year-old woman had sought assistance yesterday to find missing remains and the Sha Tin district crime squad was handling the case.

Prince of Wales Hospital said the staff member had correctly identified the compartment but did not confirm the labels on the body before showing it to the old woman who mistakenly took it away.

'We have immediately apologised to the two families involved and have tried to help one of the families to get back the ashes,' Dr Fung said.

'In respect of any compensation, we are still in discussion.'

Dr Fung said it could be difficult for people to look clearly at their loved ones' faces in the mortuary.

Limited space, an ageing population, and the long time the bodies stayed in the mortuary had increased the risk of a mix-up.

The hospital's mortuary only has 56 compartments but the number of bodies it handles is often 20 per cent more than capacity. Therefore, some compartments contain two bodies.

On the day of the mix-up there were 72 bodies in the mortuary.

Dr Fung said that on average, a body stayed in the mortuary for 16 days before it was claimed, four days more than the average in 2004, pushing the mortuary to over-capacity. But he said the hospital would not set a time limit because it was understandable that the grieving families faced difficulties in arranging a funeral.

He denied suggestions that the mortuary, which has five staff, was under-manned, or that guidelines for identification were insufficient.

Hospital Authority chief executive Shane Solomon and the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau said they were deeply concerned and had asked for a detailed report.

Legislator for the medical sector Kwok Ka-ki said public hospitals should be held to a higher standard than public mortuaries.