For customers of the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, the question may not be for whom the bell tolls, but when.
Up until this month, the medical examiner released human remains to families and funeral homes 11 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. Starting Dec. 21, those hours will be cut drastically: Bodies will be available only during a four-hour window, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and not at all on the weekends.
Grim finances aren't, as one might expect, the chief reason behind the change. Rather, it's a matter of geography, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Glenn Wagner says. This week, the office is leaving its home of 46 years at the southeastern corner of the County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa and moving into a new facility on the west side of the campus.
“It is within the center of the complex, which means access, except by carts, is going to be limited after hours and on weekends,” Wagner says. “We're still wrestling with what that's going to mean in terms of doing business.”
On a typical day, the examiner releases 30 bodies. In the lead up to the move, the office tested the new schedule, conducting intakes in the morning and releases in the afternoon.
“The early evidence is that it is not working as well as we would like,” Wagner says. While local funeral homes are adjusting, that isn't the case for those from Riverside and Orange counties, which typically retrieve bodies in San Diego in the morning at the beginning of their runs. Wagner says the office is accommodating them on a case-by-case basis.
Stacy Miles, manager of the Greenwood Memorial Park & Mortuary, which serves an eight-mortuary network in San Diego, says the company's counselors will begin explaining to families that funeral preparations may take longer.
If the medical examiner “needs the focus-time and not the interruption of releasing the bodies during the day, then I think it's our job to support them,” Miles says.
Wagner says he would like to be able to release bodies around the clock, but that's not in the budget anytime soon—especially as he anticipates potential cuts.
The Medical Examiner's Office processes half of the county's average 22,000 annual deaths, about 3,000 of which are brought to its facility. While the office has downsized during the last few years, the 53-employee department costs $8.4-million to operate and, according to the county's Chief Administrative Office's current budget plan, that should hold steady next year. Meanwhile, the release of a body comes with a $173 fee for transportation and two body bags, which represents just $350,000 in annual revenue each year (the office has also accumulated $150,000 in outstanding, unpaid fees since 2005).
Wagner hopes the new building will open up new revenue opportunities as they will be able offer toxicology and examination services to outside agencies.
“I would hope that the Board of Supervisors, as they wrestle with really heavy priorities and budget issues, look very carefully at what we do and the uniqueness of that and try to preserve as much as they can.”
The pun wasn't intended, but the medical examiner does also offer embalming.