When police discovered a child-sized coffin containing a bag of baby organs — but no baby — on a North Philadelphia street Monday night, they wondered if their grim find was the work of macabre mischief-makers or the remnants of a religious ritual gone awry.
Instead, it was simply an accident, said Capt. Malachi Jones, commander of Northwest Detectives.
Capt. Malachi Jones of Northwest Detectives talks about a child’s coffin and baby organs that were dumped Monday on a North Philly sidewalk (Dana DiFilippo/WHYY)
The owner of a South Jersey funeral home who saw initial news coverage of the dumped casket and organs called police the next day, saying the organs belonged to a 3- to 4-month-old baby who had been laid to rest June 29, Jones said. Just before that funeral service, staffers noticed the coffin’s latch had broken, and they transferred the baby’s body to a new coffin — inadvertently leaving the bag of organs behind in the broken white casket, Jones said.
A staffer then placed the defective coffin in a black trash bag, put it in a funeral vehicle, and dumped it on the sidewalk outside Mt. Peace Cemetery on Clearfield Street near 30th, where a passer-by noticed it and alerted police, he said.
Investigators haven’t determined why the staffer dumped the casket, nor why he left it in that specific location, Jones said.
It’s unclear if a crime was committed, but investigators are talking with the District Attorney’s Office to determine if abuse of a corpse or other charges are warranted against the funeral home and the staffer who dumped the casket and organs, Jones said. Jones declined to identify the funeral home or staffer.
“It was shocking, to say the least,” Jones said of the case. “You see something like that, and it begs the question: Where is the rest of this baby? Where is the body? There are no skeletal remains, just the organs. Where is the baby, and how did this end up here?”
Investigators initially worried someone “sadistic” had dug up a grave, so they fanned out across the 50-acre, 152-year-old cemetery and did a foot and aerial search, hunting for disturbed ground, Jones said.
“It was basically a whodunnit,” he added.
But then the funeral home alerted police, saying the staffer admitted that he dumped the casket and did not know it contained human organs.
Investigators aim to reunite the organs with the infant, Jones said. But the baby was buried, so that would require the remains to be exhumed, he added.
“The family is quite concerned, as anybody would be,” Jones said.
New Jersey law requires funeral homes to dispose of organs and associated viscera “in the same manner as the remains, so if that’s burial, then they’re buried, or if it’s cremation, then they would be cremated,” said Adam S. Guziejewski, deputy executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, which represents 500 funeral homes and 1,000 individual licensees in the Garden State. The law does not require doctors, coroners, or funeral home staffers to reinsert the organs in the body, he added.
It’s unclear if the incident will result in any disciplinary charges against the funeral home.
A spokesman for the State Board of Mortuary Science, which oversees funeral home licensing in New Jersey, said they’re “aware of the incident in Philadelphia and its reported connection to a New Jersey funeral home. The Board is currently gathering facts about the incident.”