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The Incredible Reason Detroit Temporarily Stopped Issuing Death Certificates


"Death doesn’t take any holidays."

A vacant, boarded up house is seen in the once thriving Brush Park neighborhood with the downtown Detroit skyline behind it in Detroit, Michigan on March 3, 2013. Image source: REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook

Detroit’s funeral directors were shocked this summer when they were told the city could not process death certificates.

Ruins at the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant as seen on Sept. 4, 2013 in Detroit. (Getty Images)

But more shocking may be the reason why: The city couldn't get the paper to print them.

“FYI, city of Detroit can’t process death certificates because they have no paper and don’t have money to buy any,” Wallace Williams, president of the Michigan Select Funeral Directors Association, texted his colleagues, the Detroit News reported.

Yes, five days after it filed for bankruptcy on July 18, the city of Detroit was so financially broken it was unable to issue birth and death certificates.

Williams referred to the temporary certificate shortage as “dire.”

He said the certificate shortage could cause major headaches for families of the deceased because without certified copies, they wouldn’t be able to access bank accounts, file insurance claims or access probate court.

“Have you ever heard such a crock?” he told the Detroit News. “They told us they ran out of paper and it might take five days to get some.”

See, the city’s regular paper vendor on July 25 decided he didn’t want to do business on credit anymore. He wanted cash.

A few funeral directors tried to lend the city paper, but here’s the thing: while hospitals and funeral parlors on July 23 were able to provide birth and death certificates, the city requires a special type of embossed paper for certified copies.

And the paper is unique to each jurisdiction.

Detroit's financial ruin has also forced the closing of the city’s vital records department. Michigan’s Wayne County will assume all birth and death certificate responsibilities, according to Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

“Employees (at the vital records department) were sitting outside because they didn’t have anything to do,” Rev. Gleo Wade said in the Detroit report. “I’ve never seen the employees just sitting outside like that before.”

The idea of a “death certificate system collapse,” as the report puts it, was totally foreign to Detroit’s funeral directors and employees.

“People don’t understand that families become very upset when they can’t get the certificate,” one worker said.

Now it’s important to note that the system breakdown was only temporary, according to Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

The city was able to work out a deal with the paper vendor, Nowling said, adding Orr expected that this sort of thing would happen once the city filed for bankruptcy.

Therefore, he added, city officials are being prepped to deal with understandably wary and nervous vendors, explaining that the city will eventually be able to pay its debts.

“Not long after running out of death certificate paper, the county told funeral directors it would no longer release bodies from the Wayne County morgue on Sundays, explaining that Sunday was a slow day for funeral homes anyway,” the Detroit report notes.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, left, speaks beside Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan at the first stage of demolishing the Frederick Douglass Homes in Detroit, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP)

“The medical examiner’s office is now closed on holidays, too, but will make exceptions for religions that require immediate burial,” it adds.

But funeral directors are still pretty unhappy with the entire situation.

“Back in the day, they’d release bodies all day long,” said Williams.

“Death doesn’t take any holidays,” he said. “Death happens every day of the week and especially on weekends.”

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Featured image AP photo.


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