FARGO — A decades-long practice of local funeral homes handling coroner calls in Cass County could go by the wayside, if all of the parties involved can reach an agreement.

With an increasing number of deaths that require a coroner’s oversight, the county coroner’s office is asking FM Ambulance to act as a “livery service” to transport bodies to the county morgue.

Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, said unattended deaths — those that occur while the person is not under a physician’s care — are on the rise. They include unusual or suspicious deaths, and those attributed to drug use, accidents, suicides and homicides.

“Then we get called and decide whether we’ll investigate,” Ross said.

For the two funeral homes that trade off each month handling coroner transports in and around Fargo, the volume is getting to be too much to handle. “You do get kind of overwhelmed with those calls,” said Jim Boulger, funeral director at Boulger Funeral Home.

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The increase can be attributed, in part, to a growing population. “Fargo is just getting to be big enough where something like this was bound to happen,” said Alex Rydell, funeral director at Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home.

While discussion of the proposed service is just starting, Tim Meyer, senior director of emergency medical services at FM Ambulance, is certain of two things: Regular ambulance calls would remain the top priority, and adding coroner calls wouldn’t be a burden.

“It’s not the funnest thing for ambulance crews to do. But it’s necessary, and we’re willing to do it,” Meyer said.

Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, shows the cooled storage space at the coroner’s office in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, shows the cooled storage space at the coroner’s office in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Unusual arrangement

The arrangement between Cass County and local funeral homes is one you don’t often see. “We’re kind of a rarity,” Boulger said.

Larger metropolitan counties in Minnesota use livery services, and across the Red River from Fargo in Clay County, the sheriff’s department transports bodies to the Twin Cities area when an autopsy is needed, he said.

Burleigh and Grand Forks counties in North Dakota, both smaller than Cass County, use an ambulance service for body removals, according to Ross.

She said another complicating trend is dealing with the death of a person who had no previous connections to this area before moving here. Finding next of kin can be difficult, she said, and in some cases, where family members are estranged, they want nothing to do with decisions or payment for final disposition.

“There’s just a lot of gray area in that there’s so many different family dynamics,” Ross said.

Currently when Boulger is called to a death scene, he’s ready for anything, whether it’s a multi-level apartment building with no elevator or an old farmhouse with a narrow staircase.

Upon being dispatched, he tells families he’ll be there within the hour, and sometimes, he has to call in extra help for the lifting involved. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if ambulance crews could do that job more quickly.

Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, shows the cooler for temporary storage at the coroner’s office. David Samson / The Forum
Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, shows the cooler for temporary storage at the coroner’s office. David Samson / The Forum

A cost to taxpayers

Ross said the Cass County Coroner’s Office handled 550 calls last year and is projected to surpass 600 this year.

In addition to a rise in unattended deaths, the office is seeing more cases resulting from Sanford Medical Center’s designation last August as a Level I adult trauma center. If a patient who suffers critical injuries in western Minnesota is flown to Sanford in Fargo and dies at the facility, “they’re reported to us,” she said.

Of all the calls the coroner’s office handles, Ross estimates 200 per year involve a potential crime scene — or are treated as a homicide until proven otherwise.

Using that figure, and the estimated $300 it would cost for FM Ambulance to transport a body, the service would cost Cass County taxpayers a maximum of $60,000 annually, she said.

Ross said she hopes some of that expense would be absorbed by funeral homes, which could pass along some of the cost to families who seek their services.

Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, talks about the increase of unattended deaths in the Fargo area. The coroner’s office is asking FM Ambulance to consider acting as a “livery service” for the county.  David Samson / The Forum
Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner, talks about the increase of unattended deaths in the Fargo area. The coroner’s office is asking FM Ambulance to consider acting as a “livery service” for the county. David Samson / The Forum

Ambulance calls are the top priority

Meyer said FM Ambulance has 12 ambulances available at peak times, and sometimes handles as many as 100 calls a day. Currently, crews only transport a body when there is no other resource available.

Having the agency act as a livery service would not impact ambulance calls, he said, because the latter would always take precedence.

However, more planning will be required on how to dispatch those coroner’s calls, and FM Ambulance employees will need to be trained in how to access the coroner’s office and its equipment, he said.

The system for transporting bodies in and around Fargo could have remained in place as it has for decades, Boulger said, but not indefinitely.

“Whether we made this change now or ... 10 years from now, I think the same outcome was going to happen,” he said.