New York City is fighting a battle in court to allow its medical examiners to burn the brains of cadavers after removing them for examination. A ruling from a lower court, which the city hopes to overturn, requires medical examiners to let the families of deceased persons wait until the brains can be put back into the bodies, or let them collect the organs later, which the city says is simply too much of a hassle.
Each year, medical examiners perform about 5,500 autopsies, removing over 1,000 brains. Each one must harden in formaldehyde for several weeks before a lab can cut into it. In the past, bodies would be returned to unsuspecting families sans brain.
Now, a court mandate requires medical examiners to hang on to bodies until families decide what they want to do with the body and the brain. If the family would like their loved one’s body back intact, the medical examiner must then hang on to the body for weeks upon weeks until the organs are ready to be returned. If the family does not mind, they can have the organs returned later, or let the medical examiner dispose of them.
According to the city, this system has created an undue burden on medical examiners. City lawyers contend that medical examiners have no obligation to notify the deceased’s family that the brains were removed, and should be allowed to dispose of the organs at their discretion.
Instead of going through the laborious process of having to put each brain back and wait weeks upon weeks each time to do so, the city would rather deal with the brains as it would with other types of medical waste, by burning it.
Some two million tons (four billion pounds) of medical waste is produced each year, and in order to deal with such a tremendous load, medical waste disposal services will usually burn it, or use another disposal method. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 90% of potentially infectious medical waste is incinerated.
This standard method of medical waste disposal would ease the burden currently being placed on medical examiners. Back before the ruling was made in 2010, next-of-kin would often unwittingly bury the bodies of their loved ones without the brains.
However, several families have sued in recent years over the issue. The practice was first exposed back in 2005, when the friends of 17-year-old Jesse Shipley, who died in a car accident, found his brain in a jar on a class trip to a morgue.
“The rights and wishes of the next-of-kin should override any desire by the city to have an absolute right to destroy the organs,” said Marvin Ben-Aron, the Shipleys’ lawyer. “There’s no evidence it’s been overtaxing on the Medical Examiner’s office.”