What Is a Morgue?

A morgue typically is a place in a medical examiner’s office or hospital designed to keep the remains of deceased individuals during an autopsy or forensic examination process. The highly regarded Cambridge Dictionary defines a morgue as:

“A building, or a room in a hospital, where dead bodies are kept to be examined or until buried.”

These basic definitions are helpful in coming to an understand of “what is a morgue.” However, to better understand the functions of a morgue, a bit more information needs to be considered.

Morgue and Cold Storage

A prime element of a morgue is the fact that the remains of deceased individuals are kept in cold storage. People oftentimes get glimpses of the type of storage used for remains in morgues in movies and television programs. 

Cold storage is used to slow the decomposition process of human remains during the time period when a body is in a morgue. A common misconception is that cold storage stops decomposition. It does not. Rather, depending on the types of cold storage used, decomposition is slowed down to varying degrees.

The two types of cold storage used in a morgue are:

  • Positive temperature cold storage
  • Negative temperature cold storage

Positive temperature cold storage involves remains being kept at a temperature between 36 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Positive cold storage is the most common type of storage used in a morgue in the United States. This type of cold storage is used in situations in which a body will be maintained in a morgue for up to several weeks. Again, the decomposition process is not stopped but rather slowed down when contrasted with what occurs at room temperature. 

Negative temperature is a type of cold storage in which human remains are maintained at a temperature between 14 and -51 degrees Fahrenheit. In this type of storage, a human body is frozen. Although frozen, the decomposition process does continue. However, decomposition proceeds at a very slow pace when a body is frozen. This type of storage is used in morgues maintained in medical schools. This type of storage can be used in a medical examiner’s office if remains will be stored pending identification of the remains or because of an ongoing criminal case associated with a person’s death. 

Differences Between a Morgue and a Mortuary

Oftentimes, people understandably consider a morgue and a mortuary to be one and the same. In fact, there are some key differences between a morgue and mortuary. Indeed, even more than a few online and other resources inappropriately utilized these terms synonymously. 

As has been discussed to some degree previously, a morgue is associated with a medical examiner’s office or a hospital. Remains are kept in a medical examiner’s morgue during the process of forensic testing and autopsies. Remains are maintained in a hospital morgue directly after a person’s death. In the case of a hospital, a deceased person’s body is kept in the morgue pending retrieval by a funeral home or mortuary. In some instances, a body remains in a hospital morgue pending an autopsy to be conducted at the medical center itself. 

A mortuary, on the other hand, is a privately owned business. The remains of a deceased individual are brought to a mortuary for preparation. Preparation typically includes embalming and dressing. These steps are taken as part of an overall process to prepare for a viewing, visitation, and funeral. In the alternative, the remains of a deceased person can be taken to a mortuary in anticipation of cremation. 

The term “mortuary” is not as widely utilized today as it was historically. Rather, the term “mortuary” has been replaced by “funeral home.”

When a body is maintained in a medical examiner’s office for the purposes of an autopsy, certain timelines are followed in Southern California. In most instances, the various medical examiner’s offices located in Southern California are able to finish an autopsy process within 24 to 48 hours. This means that the remains are available to be released to a family at that juncture.

Rules and regulations in California coroner’s offices typically require a family to make arrangements for remains to be transported from a medical examiner’s facility within 72 hours of notification that an autopsy has been concluded. If a family needs additional time, a coroner will work to accommodate. In most instances, a funeral home takes care of the transport of remains from a morgue to a mortuary.

Historical Oddity: The Waiting Mortuary

One type of mortuary is no longer in existence. This is the so-called waiting mortuary

In the 19th century, waiting mortuaries existed in a number of countries around the world. A waiting mortuary was a special building designed for the purpose of confirming that a person was truly deceased. 

During this time period, modern methods of verifying death didn’t exist. People feared being buried alive. Recently deceased individuals were placed in waiting mortuaries for a period of time to confirm death. Remains were permitted to visibly decompose to confirm death. In addition, a bell was attached to a corpse, designed to ring if the person thought to be deceased moved.