~ Issue highlights need for legislation ~
PHILIPSBURG--A man has expressed grave concern and has labelled as inhumane the fact that the corpse of his late friend Dick Brand, a Dutch national who passed away on September 25, has been lying unclaimed in the freezer of a funeral home for two months, although he has been trying to get authorities to help find a solution to bury the body.
The issue has exposed the dire need for legislation to be put in place to outline the exact procedures that should be followed in cases where the next of kin cannot be located for persons who pass away in St. Maarten. Royal Funeral Home general manager Dwain Meyers said there is no legislation currently in place and this was not the first time it had encountered a situation of this nature.
The friend Ger Walraven said numerous efforts had been made to contact Brand's next of kin in the Netherlands to no avail and futile attempts had been made for authorities to help bring closure to this matter.
In an invited comment, The Netherlands Representation Office in Philipsburg said that while it had tried "as much as possible" to help locate a next of kin, the office had no funds and was "not responsible" for paying for return tickets or funerals.
Social Affairs acting head Peggy-Ann Dros-Richardson said the Department recognised the sensitivity of this case and although no provision was made in the Ordinance governing the process of one-time financial assistance for burial expenses at the Department of Social Services, it was working on having this matter resolved in the best interest of all parties involved, especially given the humanitarian impact. She is expected to meet with Walraven today to help him find a solution.
A grief-stricken Walraven told The Daily Herald on Wednesday that his friend had been hospitalised at St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC) on September 16. He passed away on September 25 and was transferred to a funeral home. Walraven said he had been attempting to have his friend buried since then.
Walraven said he had visited the Netherlands Representation Office in Philipsburg, which had attempted to contact family members to no avail. This was confirmed by the Office representative Bianca van der Lee, who said she had received the names of Brand's two daughters and his late wife, with a request for assistance to help locate the daughters so they could be informed of their father's passing.
"Dick had no contact with his daughters since 30 years. The last letters from them, found in the apartment of Dick, were about 30 years old, with a 30-year-old address. Attempts to speak to somebody at this address failed," Van der Lee told The Daily Herald.
"Subsequently, I have consulted the GBA (gemeentelijke basis administratie) in the Netherlands. Nothing came out of that. Dick nor his wife nor his daughters could be found in the system. The only thing that the Representation could offer was mental support to his only friend Ger. All this was done in the first week after his death."
She said, "All St. Maarteners have the Dutch nationality in general. The Representations (similar to an embassy) can provide assistance to Dutch in need/distress – Dutch who are listed in the Netherlands, Dutch without insurance – we are talking about travellers, tourists. We can decide to assist them when they are in trouble, it is no right. We try as much as possible to contact family and to mediate in that kind of circumstance. We have no funds and are not responsible for paying return tickets or funerals."
She said the late Brand was not listed in the Netherlands. His friend found "proof of citizenship" from the St. Maarten Department of Civil Registry (Census Office) in St. Maarten.
"However, we tried as much as possible to help Dick's friend Ger," the Representation added and said it sympathises with "him in the loss of his dear friend."
Walraven said he also had visited Social Affairs about four to five times and had spoken to at least two of the workers requesting assistance to help bury his friend. He told this newspaper that in addition to visiting the office, he had left his phone number and was hoping that someone would contact him for a solution, but nothing had happened. Repeated visits bore no fruit.
Dros-Richardson said the Department of Social Services preferred not to play out confidential matters in the media. "We respect the right of persons who wish to engage the local media, but maintain above all else our stance to protect the privacy of persons." However, she said Social Affairs was working on having this matter resolved in the best interest of all.
Meyers said the issue brought to the fore the need for legislation to outline the exact procedures that funeral homes should follow when they encountered issues like this. He said the hands of the funeral home were tied, as there were no laws regulating what it should do under these circumstances.
In an effort to have similar situations addressed in the past, the funeral home would contact the Prosecutor's Office and the Public Health Department and obtain permission to bury persons. He said the funeral home could not take a unilateral decision to bury someone if this was not backed by law, because it could encounter problems if a next-of-kin eventually surfaced after a burial.
In the specific case of Brand, Meyers said Walraven had visited the funeral home and contact had been made with someone from Social Affairs, who had informed the funeral home that payment would have been made for the body to be buried, but even though there was communication with the individual and an e-mail had been sent about a week ago, Meyers said nothing had been forthcoming to date.
Meyers said the funeral home originally had been contacted after the man passed away and it had been informed that a next-of-kin could not be found. He said it would not have been ethical to leave the body just because there was no next-of-kin, so the funeral home had picked it up. He stressed that a "system needs to be put in place" and regulation by law for issues such as this.
Walraven wanted to bury his friend, but said he would have had to sign documents that would bind him to cover the high funeral home expenses. He declined to do so.
At one point Walraven also visited Social and Health Care Insurances SZV for assistance, which he said indicated that it could up to four months' pension, which would amount to just over NAf. 4,000. Walraven said he had been told that cremation alone would cost US $2,750. SZV could not be reached for comment.
Walraven said Brand had been registered as living in St. Maarten since December 1987. He worked as an electrical engineer and at one point also worked as a data administrator for a shopping centre and for Monte Vista.
Asked whether Brand had an estranged relationship with his daughters, Walraven said his late friend seldom had spoken about his children. He said Brand's wife had died in Curaçao some time back and issues had started when the daughters did not attend that funeral, possibly due to financial constraints. Brand's issues with his children were further compounded just over a decade ago when they had a "falling out" over a misunderstanding.
Walraven said a solution to bury his late friend should have been found a long time ago. "He was two months already in a freezer and this is inhumane. Social Affairs is not working with the funeral home. These organisations don't work together and the funeral home is just sitting back, because whoever is going to pay the bill finally has to pay US $95 for every day the body is there. They don't give a damn what is happening or who cares for whom," he said.
He looks forward to the matter being resolved in whatever way possible, so that his friend finally can be laid to rest.