Research

Bodies without names: A retrospective review of unidentified decedents at Salt River Mortuary, Cape Town, South Africa, 2010 - 2017

K M Reid, L J Martin, L J Heathfield

Abstract


Background. Decedents who remain unidentified and/or unclaimed following postmortem investigations are an international occurrence. Salt River Mortuary (SRM), one of the largest and busiest mortuaries in Cape Town, South Africa, also experiences this burden; however, little is known about the nature of these cases.

Objectives. To review all cases admitted to SRM between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2017 (n=26 960), with the objectives of quantifying the number of decedents who remained unidentified, and to better understand circumstances surrounding death and the identification methods that were attempted.

Methods. Data pertaining to unidentified cases were collected from mortuary burial records and medicolegal case files. Data were analysed using Microsoft Excel 2013 (Microsoft, USA).

Results. Over the 8-year period, 2 476 cases (mean 9.2% of caseload per annum) admitted to SRM remained unidentified. Bodies underwent an autopsy after a median of 3 days after a death declaration. However, in cases of decomposition, skeletonisation or other physical inhibitors of visual identification (n=345; 14.1%), the time between death and autopsy was undetermined owing to the overall lack of entomology analyses. Approximately 56.9% (n=1 408) of cases were between 20 and 50 years of age, and were predominantly males (78.7%). Unnatural injury-related deaths accounted for 32.4% of unidentified deaths, with firearms, assault and stabbings contributing approximately one-third each. With regard to identification attempts, forensic anthropology was requested in only 1.5% of these cases, and DNA analysis appeared to be used in only 23.6% of cases. Data pertaining to secondary identifiers, forensic odontology and fingerprint analyses were not formally recorded.

Conclusions. The relatively short time interval between death declaration and postmortem examination suggests that DNA analysis should be more regularly utilised. Furthermore, it is urged that other ancillary investigations should be more regularly employed; that there is a greater collaboration between stakeholders and identification attempts; and that results are centrally recorded.


Authors' affiliations

K M Reid, Division of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, Department of Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

L J Martin, Division of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, Department of Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

L J Heathfield, Division of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, Department of Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

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Keywords

Identification; Process; Human remains; Decomposition; Post-mortem interval; DNA; Collaboration; Forensic Pathology Services; Forensic; Mortuary; Social justice; South Africa; Salt River Mortuary

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2020;110(3):223-228. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i3.14192

Article History

Date submitted: 2020-02-26
Date published: 2020-02-26

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