The Johnson County coroner’s office is leaving the county-owned hospital.
Currently, the county coroner’s office oversees autopsies conducted as part of a death investigation at Johnson Memorial Hospital, but a growing number of death investigations means the coroner is running out of space.
The coroner’s office handled 126 death investigations last year and oversaw 32 autopsies. Annual increases of unexpected, not witnessed or unnatural deaths reflect the county’s growing population and should continue, Coroner Craig Lutz said. Ten years ago, the county coroner’s office investigated 61 deaths and performed 23 autopsies, he said.
For most of the past 30 years, county coroners have conducted autopsies at the hospital morgue, chief deputy and former coroner David Lutz said.
Craig Lutz wants a walk-in cooler for the morgue and would need an updated ventilation system as his office’s caseload grows, hospital director of business development Bill Oakes said. But the morgue at the hospital was built in 1947 and doesn’t have space for expansion where it is located. The morgue also is in a central area near the hospital cafeteria, he said.
Expanding the morgue in a high-traffic area doesn’t make sense for the hospital, since Johnson Memorial needs to protect patients and visitors from possible infections, he said.
The hospital traditionally has allowed the county coroner to use the morgue because it had the space available, but the coroner’s office has outgrown the facility, which was designed only to store bodies before they go to a funeral home, Oakes said. The morgue was never intended to be a community or forensic morgue, he said.
“Over the last several years, hospitals have withdrawn from this kind of service,” Oakes said.
Lutz is now looking for a space because he’s running out of room and the hospital isn’t including a morgue expansion in its upcoming $7 million renovation, which includes expanding the cafeteria, upgrading the hospital’s heating and air-condition system and creating a new front entrance. Lutz said he wants more locked cooler space because the two-person cooler at the hospital isn’t always big enough.
He said he would like to renovate an existing building but is willing to build. He isn’t sure how much it would cost to get a bigger morgue.
Lutz has discussed the need for a larger morgue with the county commissioners and would need to get tax funding from the county to build a new facility, Commissioner Ron West said.
The coroner’s budget doesn’t have any money in it for capital projects, and Lutz most likely will work with local funeral homes to find an existing, larger morgue to use, West said.
Any move to a new location would come at a cost, since the coroner’s office uses the hospital morgue rent-free, Lutz said. The county commissioners would have to approve spending money on a new facility, he said.
Other coroners in central Indiana continue to use local hospitals for their death investigations and office space. For example, the Hendricks County coroner uses the morgue and an office at Hendricks Regional Health and has for years. The Morgan County coroner uses a morgue at Indiana University Health Morgan Hospital and has a separate office in Martinsville.
Riverview Hospital in Hamilton County has shared its morgue with the coroner’s office for decades, Coroner Thurl Cecil said. His office does about 70 autopsies per year and handled about 320 death investigations in 2013.
Funeral homes can offer added storage space, but Lutz wants to keep his work all in one place — with a morgue, an office and an interview room all together. He also needs storage for cleaning supplies, gowns worn during autopsies and equipment.
Currently, Johnson Memorial Hospital lets Lutz use an office around the corner from the morgue, but he doesn’t have his own space for interviewing family members about what might have led to a person’s death or for returning personal belongings, he said.
He has started looking for a new facility and wants to continue working from Franklin, he said. His hope is to be working in a different building by the end of this year, he said.