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Fintan O’Toole: Ireland’s treatment of the dead shows a mentality we have yet to overcome

Former Whitehall Garda station now used as Dublin City Mortuary and the office of the State Pathologist offers little solace or comfort for the bereaved and traumatised

In common with a lot of communities in Ireland, we lost our local Garda station to the mania for austerity after the great banking crash. But ours was reborn as a place for the questionable dead.

What used to be Whitehall Garda station, on the north side of Dublin, is now home to both the Dublin City Mortuary and the office of the State Pathologist. It is where the anomalous bodies go – the murder victims and the babies who died in infancy, all those who have crossed the final frontier without having their papers checked.

It is an unsettling presence in our humdrum suburb: a liminal space, occupied by those who are no longer alive but not yet properly dead, being both unexplained and unburied.

Every time I pass it, my conscious atheist mind has to resist the unconscious urge, rising up from the depths of childhood memory, to bless myself and ward off evil.

I am by nature and trade curious, but this is a place I don’t want to go. Unless you were there for professional purposes – and therefore somewhat inured by the habits of the job – you could enter it only in dread.

For this is where people go to “identify the body”, a phrase that belongs in nightmares and murder stories. Yet I know as I pass that someone real may be doing just that.

I like to think that they are being treated tenderly. But I had begun to wonder. As I pass the single narrow entrance, there are sometimes hearses or ambulances waiting to get in. Garda cars are parked randomly on the footpath outside, for want of space.

This does not feel right. This place should be calm, controlled, unobtrusive, not, as it seems, almost chaotic. Is it possible that we screwed up even this, that we can’t manage to create a dignified and discreet place for dealing with the dead?

Last week, an evaluation report on the conversion of the Garda station into the mortuary confirmed that no, indeed, we can’t.

Bodies identified

The worst part of this story is what happens to those who have to identify the bodies of their loved ones. The room where the body is laid out is so small that it has space only for two living people.

So if you are a couple and you have to go in, say, to look at the body of your dead baby, you have to go in on your own. No staff can be there to explain things to you. No family or friends can be there to support you.

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No clergy, social workers or grief councillors can accompany you. The room, in the laconic words of the evaluation report, “does little to offer comfort and dignity”.

Meanwhile, because there is only one entrance and a narrow car park, families entering the place to identify their loved ones are not separated from the comings and goings of other corpses. As the report notes, “it is quite possible that families will witness undertakers delivering or collecting bodies as they enter the building via the same car park”.

For the professional staff, conditions are grossly inadequate. Beside serious technical shortcomings, there is a simple but grotesque reality: there are no showers or changing facilities beside the room where autopsies are carried out.

So the staff have to walk “through the building in possibly contaminated scrubs to get cleaned and changed after conducting examinations”. Likewise, blood and tissue samples taken from bodies have to be handed over to gardaí in public areas.

‘Humane’ planners

How could this happen? This facility is not some hangover from the dark past – it was built in 2016. Intelligent and presumably humane people from the Department of Justice, Dublin City Council and the Office of Public Works sat down in contemporary Ireland and planned a space where traumatised people have to identify bodies in undignified conditions and staff have to walk through the building with body fluids on their aprons.

One way of understanding this is to revert to that Irish failsafe: it could be worse. It could be because it was. The city mortuary and the office of the State Pathologist moved to the old Garda station from their dire previous accommodation: a set of portacabins on the “temporary” site of the Dublin Fire Brigade’s training centre in Marino.

They were supposed to move to a new, purpose-built medico-legal centre that was designed, planned and funded by 2010. But then, in the great bout of national self-flagellation known as austerity, this plan was ditched. We became, officially, a country that could not afford dignity in death.

The repurposed Garda station was an Irish solution to an Irish problem – the grossly inadequate as an improvement on the utterly insupportable. The Whitehall facility may be bad but it is, according to the report, “a vastly improved standard of accommodation than what predated it”.

People experiencing trauma are invited to look on the bright side of death: sure, this is horrible and cruel, insensitive and indecent, but at least it’s not a portacabin.

Will we ever escape from this mentality? Only when we decide that nothing can be fit for purpose if it does not start with human dignity.