PERU – Miami County officials have approved plans to convert the kitchen of a former jail into a morgue to house dead bodies after Dukes Memorial Hospital last week said it would no longer hold corpses for the county.

Miami County commissioners on Monday voted to spend $15,000 to renovate the kitchen at the former jail on Court Street into the county’s first morgue and office for the coroner.

Commissioners also approved $2,500 to purchase a used ambulance that will be converted into a vehicle for the coroner’s office to transport cadavers.

The move came after hospital officials told commissioners they would no longer pick up corpses or house them at the facility’s morgue.

Dukes currently provides ambulance services for the county and has agreed to hold bodies until they are claimed by family members or the coroner.

However, transporting and holding cadavers has become a burden on the county’s ambulance services and hospital’s morgue, according to Dukes CEO Debra Close.

She told commissioners Monday that the hospital struggles to keep up with emergency calls, and using an ambulance to transport a corpse could leave the county without an ambulance for real medical emergencies.

Close said it has become customary for county residents to call 911 if there is a dead body, but those cases should be handled by the coroner, not the hospital or its ambulance services, which sometimes pick up three bodies a month.

In addition, the hospital’s morgue can only hold up to two corpses, and should only be used for hospital patients, not a holding area for the county, she said. If family members don’t claim a body, cadavers can sometimes stay at the hospital for weeks, Close said.

“We cannot hold them that long,” she said. “Some people think that if they just leave them with us, we’ll take care of the plans for them. That puts us in a quandary, because we want to treat all the bodies with respect.”

That quandary was highlighted last week when Chief Deputy Coroner Todd Burns said he took a corpse to the hospital, where he was informed they didn’t have space for the body.

There was no place to hold the corpse until Burns was able to contact the family, who finally made arrangements with a funeral home to take the body.

Commissioner Josh Francis said that incident pushed officials to take steps to create a county-run morgue and transportation service for the coroner.

“As a county we were not equipped or ready for that situation,” he said. “That put a rush on us needing to get something done.”

Francis said the new morgue will be able to house up to four cadavers and allow the coroner to perform autopsies in Peru.

Burns said he previously had to travel to a Fort Wayne hospital to perform autopsies, which created an extra expense for his office, as well as local law enforcement agencies.

“This will be a lot more convenient for officers,” he said. “If we have a car accident or homicide or suicide, 99 percent of the time the officers want to be at the autopsy. We’ve been driving to Fort Wayne, and that waste’s their time and the department’s money.”

Burns said a county morgue will also make it more convenient for families to make funeral arrangements.

But the biggest benefit of a county-run morgue is freeing up the hospital’s ambulances and paramedics to respond to medical emergencies, he said.

“We’re all working together on this, but we’re in a position where we have to do this pretty quick,” Burns said.

Francis said in the long run, having a county morgue will be more convenient and practical than using the hospital’s services.

“For the money, I think we’re being efficient getting this done,” he said. “I don’t know if we could come up with a more cost effective or a quicker solution. But we have to do something. We have to have a way to transport the bodies and we have to have somewhere to put them.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo Tribune and can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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