A South Jersey funeral home employee has admitted to dumping a child-size casket, which had a bag with an infant’s organs inside, on a North Philadelphia sidewalk earlier in the week, police said Thursday.
The infant, who was about 3 or 4 months old, was buried a week ago, said Capt. Malachi Jones of Northwest Detectives.
The body and organs of the baby originally were in a casket at the South Jersey funeral home, which Jones declined to identify, but the infant’s body was then put in another coffin for the June 29 burial because the original white casket had a broken latch, he said.
It’s not yet known why the body parts, which were in a black plastic bag, were not put in the new casket and buried with the baby.
“Just prior to the funeral, the casket latch broke,” Jones said. “The baby was transferred from that broken casket to another casket. The broken-latch casket was placed in a vehicle, and an employee took that vehicle, and sometime during the employee being out with that vehicle, the casket, which was inside of a bag, was dumped at that area.”
Police responded to the 3000 block of West Clearfield Street about 9 p.m. Monday after receiving a 911 call about the discovery of a small white casket protruding out of a black trash bag on the sidewalk across from a cemetery. An investigator with the Medical Examiner’s Office, who went to the scene, confirmed that embalmed human organs were inside a black plastic bag that was inside the casket, Jones said.
Police searched on foot and by air that night to see if there were any recently dug-up graves, but found none, said Jones. Mount Peace Cemetery is across from that area of Clearfield Street. Also nearby are Mount Vernon Cemetery and Laurel Hill Cemetery.
The South Jersey funeral home director, whose name wasn’t released, called police Tuesday afternoon to report that an employee admitted dumping the casket on the North Philadelphia sidewalk, Jones said.
Police have spoken to the employee. He said he didn’t know the bag with the organs was inside the broken casket, Jones said. The captain said police didn’t know why the employee drove to North Philadelphia and dumped the broken casket on the sidewalk sometime on Monday instead of properly disposing of it.
Jones said there were no surveillance cameras that captured the employee dumping the casket.
“It’s shocking, to say the least,” Jones said.
He said the infant’s death wasn’t believed to have been suspicious. He didn’t know the baby’s gender.
“We hear it’s customary that sometimes when an autopsy is done, the organs are placed in a bag,” said Jones. “But the fact that the organs were separated from the baby, we’re still investigating that portion of it.”
As for the baby’s family members, they have been notified. “From my understanding, the family was quite upset,” Jones said.
He said he expected the baby would be “made whole” with the organs later being buried with the child’s body if that’s what the family wants.
Jones, who spoke at a news conference at Northwest Detectives headquarters, in the city’s Ogontz section, said police were conferring with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to see if any charges, such as abuse of corpse, were warranted against anyone involved. He stressed that no charges had been filed at this point.
The funeral home employees have been cooperative, and the investigation is continuing, he said.
Michael Daley, program director of the Funeral Services Programs at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, N.J., said when an autopsy is done, organs are investigated individually. They are then placed in a bag or container.
At a funeral home, the organs would be embalmed to temporarily preserve them, he said. Most funeral homes, he said, would then place the parts — whether kept in a bag or separated — back in the body before burial.
While the New Jersey State Board of Mortuary Science doesn’t specify that the internal organs need to be put back into a body, a board regulation says the organs should be treated in the same manner as the remains and shall be disposed of with the remains, Daley said.
Under “best practices” and “general decency,” he said, “it makes sense to see that the organs are put back into the remains.” Otherwise, he said, “I would not consider it professional.”
“You would hope out of decency that the body was intact when they were done handling the remains,” he said.
Kathleen Ryan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, also said: “The organs should have gone with the child.”
Under Pennsylvania law, she said, there is nothing requiring that the organs be placed back in the body. But from her experience, “most funeral home directors would have placed the organs back inside the body” as a “good professional practice.”
She described what allegedly happened at the South Jersey funeral home as “sloppy.”
Stephen Kemp, a Michigan funeral home director and a past board member of the National Funeral Directors Association, echoed similar thoughts. The organs “should never ever be separated from the child or anybody,” he said. “Some religions require you bury a baby whole.”