A spike in the number of deaths in recent weeks has disrupted funeral arrangements and put mortuaries under unprecedented stress.
An Irish Examiner analysis of death notices on the website rip.ie shows there were 9,718 published in the eight-week period from December 1, 2022, to January 25, 2023 — up 20% from 8,075 in the same period a year earlier.
The figure is also considerably higher than the 8,135 death notices published in the same period to January 25, 2021, when the country was in the grip of the worst period of the Covid pandemic.
Pre-pandemic, 6,802 death notices were published in the eight weeks to January 25, 2019, almost 3,000 fewer than in recent weeks.
The death rate in Cork has been so high in the last two months that bodies had to be stored in the city’s hospitals until space became available at the Cork City Morgue.
“Between the 19th of December and the 3rd of January, over 100 deaths were reported to my office,” Philip Comyn, coroner for Cork city, told the Irish Examiner.
This is the most ever reported for this length of time, surpassing even the busiest period during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The mortuary [at Cork University Hospital] had so many bodies it couldn’t take any more and the other Cork hospitals held onto their bodies overnight.”
Ivan Perry, of UCC School of Epidemiology and Public Health, said flu and other respiratory illnesses may be the reason for the alarming spike in deaths.
“It could also be that people are slightly more vulnerable post-Covid because there is a post-Covid elevated risk of heart disease for example, so that could be contributing to it as well.”
An analysis of rip.ie shows there were 1,092 deaths in Cork alone from December 1, 2022, to January 25, 2023 — an increase of 16.4% from a year earlier.
Death notices were at 1,007 in the December 2020 to January 2021 period, with numbers as low as 786 for the same period up to January 2019.
Mr Comyn said high death rates are being recorded across the country. He said Dr Margot Bolster, the assistant State pathologist, and mortuary staff “started work at 6am, including Saturdays, to clear the backlog”.
Mayo coroner Patrick O’Connor also noted “an extraordinary number of deaths” in the period from December 15 to January 15.
“In one five-day period, there were 17 postmortems carried out in Mayo University Hospital, which would be very unusual,” he said.
“Usually, there would be around one a day perhaps. And these are only post-mortems where there is a sudden death or exceptional circumstances. The reality is that the numbers [of deaths] are much higher.
“It is putting greater strain on frontline services — the doctors, the morticians, the pathologists, and indeed the coroners.”
Limerick Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea said he noticed a “huge upsurge in funerals” before Christmas and submitted a parliamentary question to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly in relation to excess death rates.
He said wakes and removals were disrupted, often taking place during the day because the high number of deaths meant there was not enough time in the evenings to accommodate everyone.
Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín is calling for an investigation into the unexplained rise in death rates.
He highlighted the closure of some critical health and screening services during Covid-19 and said any link with current death rates should be explored.
Last week, calls were made in the British House of Commons for an investigation into why death rates in the UK are increasing.
Some 17,381 deaths were registered in England and Wales in the seven days to January 13 — above the average for this time of year by 2,837, according to the UK Office for National Statistics.