Detroit stopped issuing death, birth certificates after bankruptcy

Laura Berman
The Detroit News
August 29, 2013

Detroit’s funeral directors received this unusual text message last month. “FYI, city of Detroit can’t process death certificates because they have no paper and don’t have money to buy any.”

The message, from a fellow funeral director, was mostly true: The city did stop issuing certified copies of birth and death certificates on July 23, days after the July 18 bankruptcy filing. That day, a nervous paper vendor demanded cash – and the city wanted to do business as usual, on credit.

FYI: In bankrupt and frequently bizarre Detroit, dying is easy. It’s proving you are dead that’s hard.

Cutbacks in hours, balky vendors, and the news that Herman Kiefer Complex will close Oct. 1 are all affecting the city’s death and dying business. The city’s vital records department will close and Wayne County will assume responsibility for issuing birth and death certificates, according to Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

“Have you ever heard such a crock?” asked Wallace Williams, president of the Michigan Select Funeral Directors Association, when asked about the paper shortage. “They told us they ran out of paper and it might take five days to get some.” Williams, who texted his 20 or so funeral director members, says the potential impact of a death certificate shortage was dire.

Without certified copies of death certificates, families couldn’t access bank accounts, file insurance claims, or access probate court. The families are often struggling financially, grieving and frustrated by any bureaucratic delay. And although funeral homes provide copies as a service to families, they wind up taking the heat.

While funeral homes and hospitals could file birth and death certificates on July 23, the city requires a special embossed paper for certified copies. Because the forms are unique to each jurisdiction, the paper couldn’t be borrowed – although some funeral directors tried to lend paper to the records department.

“Employees (at the vital records department) were sitting outside because they didn’t have anything to do,” says the Rev. Gleo Wade, Stinson Funeral Home director, who drove to the vital records department that day to see what was going on. “I’ve never seen the employees just sitting outside like that before.”

Funeral directors and employees had never witnessed a death certificate system collapse, either. Funeral home officials say the department is already understaffed and stretched thin. “People don’t understand that families become very upset when they can’t get the certificate.”

Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, says the problem was short-lived, once the vendor was assured payment. It was the kind of scenario Orr knew could occur from the beginning of his tenure here. Calming nervous vendors – the ones whose services are needed as part of the city’s function – is a new skill set for city officials.

Not long after running out of death certificate paper, the county told funeral directors it would no longer release bodies from the Wayne County morgueon Sundays, explaining that Sunday was a slow day for funeral homes anyway. The medical examiner’s office is now closed on holidays, too, but will make exceptions for religions that require immediate burial.

Funeral directors are not pleased.“Back in the day, they’d release bodies all day long,” said Williams, the funeral director association president.

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