Until they discovered that the coroner still had his heart.
Coroners have wide jurisdiction under the law to retain body parts of the deceased including organs, tissues, bones, arteries and blood for further study or training. But coroners are not required to notify any next-of-kin that they've kept a piece of their beloved, or offer to return it.
Now, after this family's experience, one San Mateo County supervisor is on a mission to change it.
"The disturbing part for me, and obviously for the family, was the way she found out," Board of Supervisors Vice President Adrienne Tissier said of the young man's mother. "It was extremely disturbing to her, because they had already performed the burial."
On Monday, the board's legislative committee voted to push for state legislation that would require the coroner to notify next-of-kin that parts of a loved one are being retained for further study. Knowing that legislative change takes time, Tissier also wants to introduce a policy change at the county level that would go into effect right away.
"I think it's the right thing to do, truthfully, and it's the sensitive thing to do," Tissier said. "The problem is, no one knew the coroner had the ability to do this."
After an inquiry by the mother, her son's heart was released to her. It is unclear what she has done with it since, but it is believed to remain unburied. A request to the family for comment placed by Tissier's office on behalf of the Times was not answered Tuesday. The Coroner's Office could not immediately identify the young man. Under the proposal, coroners would be required to notify families before the body is released and final interment arrangements are made. The law would also require that a coroner offer to return the parts to the family when finished with them. Such information might lead a family to hold off on funeral arrangements until the part is returned, or make arrangements differently.
"It's really just to notify, so that people are aware of it and so they don't get surprised months later," Tissier said.
It would not, however, require that the coroner obtain permission from the family in order to keep body parts. The law would not apply in cases where doing so might compromise the integrity of a criminal investigation.
"The objective of good public health, including good public mental health, is thwarted when next-of-kin unexpectedly discover that closure after the death of a loved one is not entirely possible due to the retention of body parts, and questions linger about the future use of those parts," a document outlining the proposal states.
Current law requires that an attempt be made to obtain consent from next-of-kin only when the coroner plans to give body parts to other entities for further study, such as a university.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault was not available for comment Tuesday, and Chief Deputy Coroner Thomas Marriscolo did not return a call seeking comment. However, according to the proposal documents, the idea is supported by Foucrault and his office.
Furthermore, the document states, Foucrault, first vice president of the California State Coroners' Association, "doesn't know if his own organization will oppose it, but he's going to ask for their support."
A proposal for the new policy could come before the Board of Supervisors for a vote as soon as next month.
But Tissier does not want to stop there, as there is an equal push for the benefit of notification for all state residents.
"After visiting with this constituent, I felt like it upset her, and it was upsetting to me, that she wasn't notified," Tissier said. "I think most people would want to be notified."
Staff writer Rebekah Gordon can be reached at (650) 306-2428 or firstname.lastname@example.org.