Who is the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office for?
That’s one question raised by the office’s decades-long proclivity to use the remains of Philadelphians, especially Black city residents, for their own purposes without notifying family members. In their zeal to advance scientific knowledge, a succession of top officials failed to maintain the empathy and ethics required when entrusted with the remains of others.
Reporting by The Inquirer — and recently resurfaced by local news site Billy Penn — uncovered a history of Philadelphians’ bodies being used for research without consent. In 1994, the brains of the deceased were shipped to the University of Pennsylvania for use in classroom demonstrations. The 1990s also saw unclaimed bodies sent to a school for funeral directors. The Medical Examiner’s Office removed the eyes of dead children in order to test new equipment. This predates the recent news that remains of MOVE bombing victims were kept for decades before their destruction was ordered — but not carried out — by former Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who resigned in May following the revelations.
Those disclosures also prompted Mayor Jim Kenney’s office to announce an investigation into the city’s mishandling of MOVE victims’ remains, expected to be completed by January 2022. This board — whose Opinion pages shared some of the first reporting on Penn’s holding of remains without family consent — called for that investigation to be the last one a Philadelphia mayor ever has to carry out to bring justice to affected families and to improve procedures. Billy Penn’s article about how past promises to do better at the Medical Examiner’s Office did not prevent later atrocities adds gravity to Mayor Kenney’s plans to reform the office.
The Kenney administration cannot reuse the playbook from last year’s investigation into police misconduct, the findings of which failed to hold significant figures accountable. This investigation must be different.
Kenney’s office has repeatedly used the right words when it comes to equity and racial justice, but we know from previous administrations that the right words did not prevent unethical research agreements, and won’t be enough to prevent them in the future.
That’s why it is disappointing to hear from members of City Council that the administration has not provided open lines of communication around the scope of their investigation. According to Councilmember Cindy Bass, the city has not responded to requests for information. Bass also told this board that she has more faith in City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s plans to investigate than those in City Hall, which has power and responsibility over the Medical Examiner’s Office. The board supports the controller in launching a future investigation, but ultimately it is the mayor who must implement changes. We need concrete policy changes and accountability measures to ensure that human life is respected by the Medical Examiner’s Office and that someone in government is paying attention.
These misdeeds were done in the dark, hidden from public view. Any investigation designed to correct them must show full transparency, uncover all the secrets of the office, right the wrongs committed, and ensure that no other Philadelphian has to worry about how their loved ones will be treated after they die.