HOSPICE TIP: Did you know you can transport a dead body to the funeral home in your own vehicle?
I’m often asked how I can work with terminally ill and the elderly. Some think it’s morbid and others say it’s too sad, while still others think it must be boring. Let me assure you, it is NEVER boring. Hospice nurses run into some extremely interesting experiences. And boy do I have a story for you.
We had a patient who was a miserly little old man. Sweet as could be, but I’m sure when he died, he still had the first penny he ever made. He was known for wearing old tattered clothes and driving a beat-up old truck. He had plenty of money, but he never spent any. His children were the same way. Cattle money made them all wealthy but living on a shoestring was their way of life. He was always seen picking up cans and recycling. He lived in a modest frame house on their ranch. His children and their families lived in newer but still modest homes scattered across the hilly acreage.
At his death the family called hospice. When Nurse Johnny arrived, he pronounced the patient deceased, and per protocol, notified the local authorities to give report. The Sheriff’s department sent a deputy to the scene, and according to Johnny, the family wanted to transport the patient’s body to the funeral home themselves so that they wouldn’t have to pay for transportation. The deputy wasn’t having it, and Johnny didn’t know what to do. He called the director of the hospice and Eryn drove out to the ranch to see what she could do.
Red and blue flashing lights broke the early morning darkness and served as a beacon as Eryn crossed the cattleguard and maneuvered down the long, rutted driveway. A thin fog hovered over the deep ditches, and blurred the silhouettes milling about the front of the house. She parked next to the patrol car flashing its colors across the open field. Johnny stood near his motorcycle looking more like a burly biker than a registered nurse. His scruffy beard and long hair both tied neatly with hair bands, and his black boots didn’t fit with the purple scrubs he wore. A stranger would not have trusted him, but his good nature and excellent people skills brought him success in home care and now in hospice.
A yellow porch light revealed the patient’s family gathered on the porch. Eryn knew this family and the local deputy, and from Johnny’s report, she expected it to be a hot mess when she arrived. She rounded a faded green 1980’s truck backed up to the front door and saw that someone had wrapped Morgan Mason, Sr.’s body in a sheet, mummy style, and slid it head first into the back of the old pick-up. Bare feet rested on the open tailgate, toes sticking out. “Oh Lord,” Eryn mumbled. The officer stood with one foot up on the truck’s bumper. Yep, a hot mess.
The patient’s son stood in the bed of the truck. “Hey Morgan,” she called. “What’s going on?”
Morgan turned at his name. “Hey Eryn. Deputy Sheriff here wants us to pay the funeral home to come get my daddy, but we know daddy wouldn’t have it that way, not when we have a perfectly good truck to carry him to town.”
“Tim,” she greeted the officer. “What’s the problem?”
The deputy tipped his Stetson, “Morning, Eryn. Sorry you had to get out so early, but I take issue with a family member hauling a body. Just don’t seem right.”
Morgan spoke up. “We got a right to save money anyway we can. We aren’t stealing anything, and we didn’t commit no crime.”
“Actually Tim, Morgan’s right. A family does have a right to transport the body themselves.”
“There now, I told you, lawman.” Morgan said, pulling his dad’s body further up into the truck.
“I can’t believe that’s legal.” Tim said, as Morgan jumped to the ground. The officer moved his foot from the bumper to allow Morgan to slam the tailgate shut.
“Hold on, Morgan,” Eryn said. “You are both right.” The two men looked at her astounded.
“How?” They asked in unison.
“Well, Morgan, you are legally able to transport your dad, if you have the legal paper work, but the body has to be in a proper container.”
“Susie,” Morgan hollered for his wife. “Call Donnie. Tell him to finish that pine box and get it over here, now.”
Deputy Tim put his hands up and backed away. “Not calling the JP for some paperwork at 2 am and not waiting on an unfinished casket. Take him on like he is. I’m outa here.”
Her voice rose with panic. “Hold on, hold on. You can’t just let him drive down the highway with a dead body wrapped in a sheet.”
“You’re the one sided with him and said it was legal.”
“I didn’t side with anyone. I’m saying you are both right.”
“Ok, then you don’t need me.”
Eryn looked him in the eye. “Officer Timothy Higgins, you know good and well if you pulled someone over to give them a ticket, and they had a dead body wrapped in a sheet you would arrest that driver and call your supervisor.”
He made a face and wagged his head. “Probably.” A car pulled into the drive and they all turned to see a shiny black SUV skirting the other cars. A large man in a suit got out and ambled toward them. Tim turned back to Eryn and Morgan. “Looks like the funeral home is finally here to transport him,” Tim grinned. “Problem solved.”
“Well, he’s got a problem if he thinks he’s hauling daddy and charging us for it, because we ain’t going to let him.”
Tim shifted and with both hands on his hips said, “Morgan, stop being an idiot.”
“Idiot? You calling me an idiot?”
Eryn and Johnny stepped aside. This was getting serious. They waited at a distance to see how it would unfold.
“I’m sorry, Morgan, but it’s not like you don’t have the money. Why do you even want to mess with this when you can afford for someone with experience to give your dad dignified transportation? We’re talking twenty miles, not a hundred. Trevor is already here.”
Morgan squinted and leaned forward, his elbows thrust behind him like a fighting rooster about to flog. “Now you just offended me and mine.”
Tim snorted. “How?”
“You trying to say our old truck and me ain’t good enough for my daddy to ride with?”
Tim closed his eyes and shook his head. Trevor came up to the group. His eyes bulged when he saw the mummy-like body in the truck bed. He added accusations to the problem, questioning them why they didn’t wait for him.
“Who called you anyway?” Morgan asked, resentment in his voice.
Trevor glanced at Tim. “I got a call saying you needed assistance transporting your deceased loved one to the funeral home.”
After much cursing and discussion, Morgan got choked up. He stormed up into the truck bed, and sat cross-legged next to his daddy, mumbling and swiping at his eyes. Eryn walked over to the deputy. “Tim, can I talk to you?” Tim stepped away with her. “You know you’re at a standstill,” she said. “If this keeps up, you’re going to have to arrest Morgan, and I don’t want to see him, and the family suffer any more pain.” She glanced at Morgan and then to his family all hanging out at the front porch. “Can’t you at least call your supervisor and see what they say?”
Tim huffed. “Alright, alright.”
The deputy stepped away and made a phone call. When he hung up, he turned to the group. “That was my supervisor,” he nodded at Eryn. “He said he notified the JP who has released the body to be transported by the family.” Officer Tim looked at Morgan. “He also wants your dad in a casket, and I am to escort you to the funeral home. He says you need to meet the JP at the courthouse at 8:00 this morning to complete the paperwork. No excuses.”
They waited for Donnie to arrive with the casket. He and Morgan lifted their dad into the pine casket lined with soft quilted padding and covered it with a blanket.
The patrol car led the way—lights flashing, followed by Morgan’s truck, followed by the funeral director, then Johnny’s motorcycle, and lastly Eryn. They made a fine procession of vehicles going down the highway as the sun rose over the hill tops. This hot mess had warmed to a sweet send off for Morgan Sr.
Being a Hospice nurse is an adventure. One never knows what to expect, but it’s a hospice nurse’s goal to advocate for the patient and family in every situation. Do you need an advocate? Someone to count on in hard times?
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