A widow received damages from a National Health Service trust after a mortuary allowed her late husband’s body to decompose to the point it was “invisible”, The Guardian can reveal.
Caroline Murray said she had struggled to grieve properly and suffered from intrusive mental images of what the body of her husband, Paul, would have looked like in an advanced state of decomposition.
When the body was finally released to the family five months after Paul’s death, funeral directors were unable to identify him from a photo and advised his widow not to view him. She was only able to identify her husband over the phone when the funeral director confirmed that Paul still had his wife’s rosary beads in his hand.
Ultimately, the family was unable to celebrate a funeral mass before the cremation, due to the poor condition of the body.
In a settlement proceeding, the Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has admitted it did not follow internal procedures regarding the timing of body condition checks after Paul’s death in November 2020.
Lawyers acting for the trust said the oversight occurred during the Covid-19 crisis when the morgue was experiencing “unusually high levels of occupancy and significant understaffing.”
An internal investigation by the trust cast doubt on claims by morgue staff that they had carried out a first body check, after it emerged that paperwork had been completed retrospectively only after concerns were raised.
Caroline said: “It’s been absolutely devastating, unbelievable. Because dealing with losing Paul and then dealing with all of this… It’s been horrendous. I’ve had to put all normal feelings of pain aside because I’ve been trying to figure out in my mind what the hell really happened. It’s just been horrible, horrible.”
The couple, who were married for 43 years, lived in Whitchurch, Hampshire. Paul worked for the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and was a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team (wear), traveling the world to help with disasters abroad, including the 2011 New Zealand earthquake.
“I can’t sum him up in five minutes, he was just the most wonderful, loving person in the world,” Caroline said. “He loved the outdoors, ice climbing, skiing, he was the kindest person in the world. I never heard him say anything derogatory about anyone.”
Paul, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, died aged 64 on November 20, 2020 and his body was transferred to Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital Morgue on November 23.
A month later, on December 23, morgue staff claim they carried out a check on the condition of the body and found that it “could not be seen”, but an internal investigation found that the check did not take place.
The investigation’s root cause analysis report, conducted by a cellular pathology laboratory manager at Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth between July and September 2021, found a “lack of evidence” to explain why the opportunity to freeze Murray’s body at 30 days.
The report says a record of the condition of the body check was retrospectively completed which allegedly took place on December 23, 2020. When the manager of the Hampshire trust’s pathology laboratory questioned the validity of the document, the morgue team said that it had been completed at a later date to help train a team member in the process. The investigation found this explanation “unlikely”.
The Hampshire trust continues to insist that the check of the body was carried out on December 23. However, even if verification was carried out, the trust accepts that it did not act on the finding that the body was “non-visible”.
The morgue team told the inquiry that a call was made to the coroner’s office on December 23, 2020, requesting permission to freeze the body. However, there is no record of the call. The inquest deemed it “unlikely” that the call was made given the meticulous nature of the rest of the case notes from the coroner’s office.
When the body was turned over to funeral directors, it was so decomposed that they were unable to see a severe scar on Paul’s leg from a motorcycle accident as a teenager.
Caroline said: “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this horrendous trauma. I want people to be aware of what’s going on.”
Caroline’s lawyers argued in their demand letter that the treatment of Paul’s body was a violation of his family’s rights under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), regarding the right to respect for private and family life.
In a separate case in 2021, Judge Andrew Saffman found that Leeds University Hospitals trusted by the NHS had breached Article 8 by failing to preserve the body of Emily Whelanand awarded damages to his family.
In the Murray settlement, lawyers acting for the Hampshire trust denied that the treatment of Paul and his family amounted to a violation of Human Rights Act.
Matthew Gold, who acted on behalf of the widow, said: “Paul’s death was traumatic enough for his wife, Caroline, to confront her on the 20th. November 2020. The failure of Basingstoke and North Hampshire hospital to preserve Paul’s body, resulting in him being unrecognizable, made matters much worse.
“This amounted to a violation of the Human Rights Law as no dignity or respect was shown to Paul’s body. The hospital trust settled Caroline’s claim following a critical investigative report. Unfortunately, this is not the only case of bodies not being properly preserved causing families great distress after the death of their loved ones.”
Alex Whitfield, chief executive of Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation, said: “We are deeply sorry that the care we provided in this case did not meet the high standards that our patients and their families rightly expect.
“A thorough investigation has been carried out, with robust measures in place to prevent this from happening again. We recognize and regret that these learnings cannot change what happened for Mr. Murray and his family.”