Formal written request never made that woman’s body be released for burial, says Coroner

Group’s request that Sylva Tukula’s body be released after investigation never put on file

Sylva Tukula Photograph: AMACH! LGBT+

Sylva Tukula Photograph: AMACH! LGBT+

 

No formal written request was made to a coroner that the body of a woman who died in direct provision be released to her friends following the investigation into her death, the Department of Justice has said.

Galway West Coroner Dr Ciarán Mac Loughlin, who signed off on the burial of Sylva Tukula last mont, has said the request that Ms Tukula be released to her friends and colleagues from the Amach! LGBT+ was never made in writing and as a result was not placed on file.

The Coroner, who met a senior official from the Department of Justice on June 7th after it emerged that Ms Tukula had been buried without mourners present, told the official that under normal circumstances a written request would be made if a person or group wishes to be told when a body is to be released for burial.

In the case of Ms Tukula, and the request by Amach that her body be released following the investigation into her death, “a formal request was not recorded on the file”, said a Department of Justice spokesman. As a result, Dr Mac Loughlin arranged for the “appropriate and dignified burial of the deceased” as is the standard practice when next of kin have not been identified, he said.

The department has said it deeply regrets the “breakdown in communication” between various State agencies which resulted in Ms Tukula being buried in a HSE-owned plot without her friends being notified May 9th, 2019 and that all necessary steps would be taken “to ensure this outcome is never repeated”.

Ms Tukula, a transgender woman, was buried last month following an investigation into her death on August 2nd last at the all-male Great Western direct provision centre. Ms Tukula was believed to be in her mid-30s when she died and spent most of her life in South Africa.

Her body was held for nine months while gardaí attempted to make contact with her family in Africa. She was buried after the coroner was told no next of kin could be found. However, Ms Tukula’s friends and colleagues say they were “assured by both national and local State representatives” that they would be notified as soon as burial arrangements were made.

Dr Mac Loughlin told The Irish Times he was never informed that Ms Tukula’s friends were waiting to receive her body. He added that she was found to have died of natural causes. “Had we known anyone was interested we would have informed them but no one said anything to me or the bereavement officer in Galway,” he said.

The Department of Justice confirmed it had been liaising with gardaí and Ms Tukula’s friends to ensure her body was released for burial. A Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) staff member, who had been in contact with an Garda Síochána during the investigation and who sent a number of reminders of the Amach request, only found out what happened two weeks after the May 9th burial in a HSE-owned plot at Bohermore cemetery, according to the department.

A Garda spokesman said the force was “not aware of when the burial took place” while a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection, which arranged the burial through University Hospital Galway, said they did not know a group was waiting to claim the body.

The Amach! LGBT+ Teach Solais volunteer group said the decision to bury Ms Tukula without a ceremony was “deeply offensive” to her friends and the LGBT community and called for an investigation into the miscommunication.

“We had the understanding that we would be made aware of the funeral arrangements in advance so our community, Sylva’s Galway family, could be a part of this service, and to ensure that her life was celebrated.”

The Department of Justice said it was committed to taking “appropriate action to ensure that formal requests are made in the future” so that friends and family are kept informed “through appropriate communications” of burial arrangements.