York County eyes prison for new morgue

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

After decades of sharing a small morgue with York Hospital and farming out decomposing bodies to funeral homes and crematories, the York County Coroner's Office may soon have its own morgue and office space at York County Prison.

John McCoy, facilities manager for the prison, said there's a vacant dormitory space next to one of the prison command centers that would be large enough to retrofit as a morgue and office.

"If it’s feasible to do, I think it’s a really good fit," he said.

The prison board voted  March 12 to authorize the York County commissioners to move forward with a feasibility study about the potential move.

The coroner's office is housed at the Pleasant Acres annex building, which the county sold to Premier Healthcare Management in 2018 along with Pleasant Acres Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

York County Coroner Pam Gay has been talking about the need for the county to have its own morgue since she took office in 2014.

The York Hospital morgue only has room for eight bodies at a time, and that space is shared between the hospital and the county, Gay said, meaning space is often in short supply. 

Then there's the issue of decomposing bodies. If a body is found at a scene and has already started decomposing, it can't be stored in the same cooler with the others.

"We don’t really have a space to put those types of decedents, and we run into that several times a month," Gay said.

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When that happens, or when they run out of space, the coroner's office reaches out to local funeral homes or crematories asking to use space.

The hospital morgue also doesn't allow for family members to view their deceased loved ones, Gay said, and there's nowhere for staff to wash their clothing or take showers after responding to the scene of a death.

Old morgue: The county does have its own morgue in the basement of the Pleasant Acres annex building, but Gay said there's a reason it hasn't been used for decades.


"It’s not equipped with anything that we need," she said. "It’s very old and antiquated."

Vice President Commissioner Doug Hoke said the county commissioners have traveled to Adams and Lancaster counties to tour the morgue facilities, and he said the Adams County morgue is at the Adams County Prison.

Hoke said the feasibility study will likely take several months, but if all goes well, the commissioners hope to have the coroner's office out of the annex building before the end of the year.

The study aims to show how much it would cost for the county to make the necessary changes, such as installing a walk-in cooler and making sure the area has proper HVAC and electricity connections, McCoy said.

Gay said that walk-in coolers are more efficient and ergonomic than storage drawers and that neighboring counties that have their own morgues have walk-in coolers.

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Why the move: The Pleasant Acres annex is home to several offices, some affiliated with county government and some not.

Tenants include the York County Conservation District, the York County Bureau of Weights and Measures and a magisterial district court office, as well as the local offices for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pennsylvania Immigrant Resource Center.

When the county finalized the sale of the nursing home and annex to Premier Healthcare Management, the agreement included a provision that would allow the county to lease the annex space until Dec. 31, 2020.

The county is under agreement to purchase a building on Pleasant Valley Road in Springettsbury Township where the annex offices will move, but the option of moving the coroner's office to the prison instead would  allow for the office to be next to its own morgue.

"If all goes well with the plans, we are very pleased with the potential," Gay said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the type of cooler that would be in the new morgue. It would be a walk-in cooler.