York County's morgue opens Monday, a project years in the making

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Coroner Pam Gay has waited years for the day when York County would have its own morgue — a place where grieving families have the time and privacy to absorb bad news, to make necessary decisions about the deceased and to find solace in a quiet space.

Because as Gay stressed during an open house at the new facility on Friday morning, morgues aren't simply waystations for the dead.

At their best, morgues are for families of the dead too, the coroner said, adding that York County's new $2 million morgue is "an investment in the living for years to come."

The morgue is located in the back of York County Prison, off Concord Road in Springettsbury Township. It opens Monday for business, although the coroner and her staff have been working there for many months, including during construction that started in October, Gay said.

Its main cooler room can currently accommodate 30 to 32 corpses, according to the coroner.

The morgue's freezer can hold three bodies, Gay said, and is needed for long-term storage and for when bodies are in states of advanced decomposition.

The former coroner's office in the neighboring Pleasant Acres complex was tiny and didn't even have its own bathroom. The office relied on York Hospital's morgue to hold the recently deceased, Gay has said, but finding a place at a local crematorium or funeral home for decomposing bodies was always a scramble and an extra cost for taxpayers.

The morgue has lockers, showers, bathroom facilities, a washer and dryer for sheets and for clothing soiled in the field, and seven offices for administrative personnel, deputy coroners and the coroner, as well as an evidence room for personal property belonging to the dead.

"We made use of every nook and cranny," Gay said. "Every space is utilized."

With construction at the morgue at the York County Coroner's Office completed, a tour of the facility was given Friday, April 23, 2021.Bill Kalina photo

There's also a large sally port with a secure garage door, an industrial weighing scale and a lift that can handle up to 1,000 pounds, Gay said.

The staff: In addition to the elected Gay, the York County Coroner's Office employs four full-time deputy coroners, two office-support staff members and seven part-time deputy coroners, according to Tania Zech, Gay's chief deputy coroner.

There are volunteers as well, who are tasked with maintaining contact with families of the dead and making sure they have the support and services they need, Gay said — relationships that sometimes last for years.

The coroner said her ultimate goal is for the morgue to employ, or at least contract with, a forensic pathologist and diener who can conduct autopsies on site. Dieners are morgue workers who assist pathologists.

York County Coroner Pam Gay, left, and Karen Frank, deputy coroner, talk with Scott Loercher of Buchart Horn in the main cooler room during a tour of the office's new morgue facility Friday, April 23, 2021. Buchart Horn was the architectural and engineering firm for the morgue construction. Bill Kalina photo

For now, when deaths are considered suspicious, bodies will continue to be taken to Forensic Pathology Associates in Allentown for autopsy, she said, as York County has done for decades.

During a Friday-morning tour of the facility, York County Commissioner Doug Hoke said much of the existing prison infrastructure, including the shower and bathroom areas, worked for the morgue.

President York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler summed up Gay's approach to creating a morgue in three words: passion, perseverance and diligence. Wheeler thanked Gay "for not giving up."

'Serene room': The morgue's family viewing room has comfortable furniture, plants, bereavement pamphlets and books, and will soon have a refrigerator and beverage station. A large window in the room offers a view of the morgue's large examination area and will allow people to see their dead loved ones prior to the bodies being sent to funeral homes or crematoriums, Gay said.

York County Coroner Pam Gay talks with York County Commissioner Doug Hoke during a tour of the office's new morgue facility Friday, April 23, 2021. They are standing in the "Serene Room," a viewing area for family of decedents. Bill Kalina photo

A motorized curtain will be installed that can be raised and lowered as needed, the coroner said.

Tracy Linn calls it the serene room. She and her family have volunteered their time to help make the family viewing room a place where those in grief can find comfort and have the chance to see their loved one.

"That was very important to us," she said.

Linn, a traffic-safety specialist with southcentral Pennsylvania's Center for Traffic Safety, lost son Jacob Linn on Jan. 10, 2015. The 18-year-old college student was a passenger in a car that crashed into a tree on Kendale Road in Windsor Township. Also killed was 15-year-old Aislinn Wisniewski. The 17-year-old driver and a third passenger survived.

"When we lost Jake we were not allowed to see him," Linn said, because York Hospital's morgue doesn't have a visiting room.

She said she feels as if she didn't get the chance to say goodbye to him, and regrets it.

Gay was able to provide Linn with photos of Jake, but it wasn't the same.

"No one should have to view pictures of their dead loved ones on a computer," Linn said, adding she and her family are excited about the fact that York County's new morgue will not only end that practice, but also allow coroner staff to offer the kind of comfort and support that Gay has put a premium on as coroner.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

Deputy York County Coroner Karen Frank, right, talks with Scott Leorcher of Buchart Horn and his guest Leigh Makow,  in the autopsy room of the York County Coroner's Office morgue during a tour of the office's new facility Friday, April 23, 2021. Buchart Horn was the architectural and engineering firm for the morgue construction. Bill Kalina photo