Tales of the crypt for psychiatrists: mourning, melancholia, and mortuary malpractice.

S. Eth, G. B. Leong and T. R. Garrick,
Bull. Amer. Acad. Psychiatry & the Law 24(4): 483-92, 1996.
Death awaits all, leaving in its wake relatives and friends affected by the loss of a loved one. Immediately following death, the funeral process begins, resulting in permanent burial in a cemetery. This report investigates the dysfunctional interactions between grief-stricken relatives and mortuaries that are associated with civil litigation for negligence. Psychiatric evaluations of 25 bereaved plaintiffs from nine separate lawsuits were performed. In addition, medical records and legal pleadings were reviewed as sources of additional information. General themes from the clinical material are identified and illustrated by two cases. Surviving relatives are in an acute state of emotional turmoil, rendering them exquisitely sensitive to lapses in expected routine and perceived disrespect toward the decreased. These issues are intensified when the circumstances of the death were traumatic, when the relationship with the deceased was ambivalent, when specific cultural and religious factors are present, and when the influence of litigation is felt. If the burial process is disrupted, civil suits for negligence may be filed that exacerbate grief and challenge the psychiatrist's efforts to resolve diagnostic ambiguity in the face of emotionally charged cultural and religious practices.