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Improving Hospital Mortuaries for Bereaved Families

In moments of reflection, we may contemplate how we use our time, reflecting on all the things we still need to do and the conversations we wished we had had. While some may ponder the thought of death, we seldom think about the place in which our relatives will say their last goodbyes. 

But this is important and can leave a lasting impact on the bereaved when their loved one has died. Think about your hospital mortuary, if you’ve been, or your own experience of grief. Was the environment as comforting as it could have been? 

The Design & Dignity (D&D) programme was born out of an understanding that surroundings affect those going through the trauma of death. This programme was an initiative of Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF) and is managed in partnership with Health Services Executive (HSE Estates), it strives to bring about a transformation of both the physical setting within acute hospitals and the culture of care.

Paula O’Reilly, CEO of Irish Hospice Foundation, commented:

The vision of Design & Dignity is that every adult, paediatric and maternity hospital in Ireland has warm and welcoming spaces to enable dignity and respect for patients and families facing dying, death and bereavement.

The HSE has adopted the Design & Dignity Guidelines, which support staff and hospitals to provide compassionate and dignified spaces during dying, death and bereavement for patients, relatives, and staff. Mortuaries should offer a sanctuary where life and death can be revered in a serene, respectful, and reassuring atmosphere. However, for some in their current state of disrepair, hospital mortuaries are struggling to provide this and don’t reflect the compassion care provided by staff.

Micheál Conneely, Corporate Estates Manager – Capital, HSE Estates commented:

Design & Dignity projects are making a real difference to patients, families, and staff. The success of these projects is due to the support and passion of staff and management of the hospitals who have championed these projects and can see the benefits they bring to their hospital setting

Since its inception in 2010, Design & Dignity has awarded funding to 47 projects, 13 of which were Mortuaries. These projects focused on the refurbishment of public spaces within mortuaries, including features such as viewing rooms, family meeting rooms with refreshment amenities, facilities for the dignified return of organs, outdoor spaces, and designated parking for visiting families. 

Viewing Area

In August 2019, IHF and the Design & Dignity programme proposed the need for ring-fenced funding specifically for mortuaries. This was supported by the HSE, having identified a need for mortuary refurbishments to create dignified sanctuaries for the deceased and their loved ones.

May 2023 will mark the completion of works on St Columcille’s Hospital Mortuary, Loughlinstown, Dublin, with refurbishment having begun in January 2023. This is the product of years of advocacy, made possible by the devoted team at St Columcille’s, who are working to continually improve end-of-life care within the hospital.

One key member of this team has been Marianne Quinn, who was Hospital Chaplain for 17 years. In recognition of the need for this refurbishment, Marianne commented:

[The bereaved] deserve a nice place to be. These are the last memories of being [with their loved one]

Mary Henry, Senior Anatomical Pathology Technician, has worked within the mortuary for the past 25 years and provided her insight to the value of this project, stating that the project ‘shows the family that their time with their loved one is valued’.

St Columcille’s is a busy mortuary, serving not only the hospital but also the surrounding areas with post-mortems. In 2022 there were 345 people who died and were taken to the mortuary, of which 233 required post-mortems. Many of the distressed families visiting the facility had lost their relative to sudden traumatic events such as death by suicide, accident, or murder. Given the volume, complexity, and nature of these deaths, the need for creating a dignified and respectful space was of the utmost importance.

The project at St Columcille focuses on the relative’s area, modernising the viewing room and facilities for families and access to the mortuary, including four designated parking spaces for the bereaved. Once completed, it will provide an environment which respects the dignity of the patient and their closest family.

Maureen O’Connell, End-of-Life Care Coordinator at St Columcille’s Hospital shared her experience of being involved with this project;

I am privileged to have been involved in the upgrade of the Mortuary in St Columcille’s Hospital which will provide a warm, respectful and compassionate space for deceased persons, and for their families to grieve.

This project to improve the mortuary facilities will serve as a testament to the dedication, advocacy, and commitment of the team within St Columcille’s, whilst at the same time working to improve the experience of dying, death, and bereavement across the hospital.

If you would like to find out more information about the Mortuary Capital Programme, please email d&[email protected]