The death of an Orthodox New Rochelle psychiatrist and avid hiker on the slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington State earlier this month touched off a court fight over the medical examiner’s insistence on conducting an autopsy and the family’s refusal to permit it. It took the intervention of the governor to prevent the autopsy.
Rabbi Zalman Heber, director of Chabad of Pierce County in Tacoma, Washington, said the medical examiner’s actions not only kept the family from burying their loved one in Israel in a timely manner but the delay also added to their grief.
“It was agony for them,” Rabbi Heber said of the wife and two children of Brian Grobois, 54, who apparently died of hypothermia Dec. 11 during a solo snowshoe hike on Mount Rainier.
Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the Chevra Kadisha of Vaad Harabonim of Queens, said such a tug-of-war with the medical examiner could not happen in New York.
“New York has a law that accommodates objections to autopsies on religious grounds unless there is a compelling public necessity – either a crime is involved or it involves a health emergency,” he explained. “In a case like this, where there was no concern about a crime and no agencies that deal with crime – the local police or district attorney – were interested because they believed it was a natural death, the body would have been released in a short period of time.”
In Washington State there is no such law and the medical examiner “took the position that there had to be a clear cause of death and that an autopsy was required” to make that determination, Rabbi Zohn said.
According to Jewish law, an autopsy is considered a desecration of the body because it involves “making an incision and certain parts – tissues and blood that would be removed during the course of the autopsy – would not be buried with the body,” Rabbi Zohn explained.
Grobois was reported missing by his family in New York on Dec. 12 when they failed to hear from him. A rescue helicopter was dispatched and his lifeless body was spotted late in the day. Because of the rough terrain and approaching darkness, the helicopter could not land and a ground rescue team was sent in the next morning to recover his body.
“According to the Mount Rainier investigating team, he veered off the path,” Rabbi Heber said. “They found his body in a creek.”
The Associated Press quoted a park spokeswoman as saying Grobois likely lost this way, became exhausted, sat down and succumbed to the brutal cold – the temperature dipped to 14 degrees that night and Rabbi Heber said Grobois was not prepared to spend the night outdoors.
After the body was recovered, the local medical examiner announced plans to conduct an autopsy the next day, Wednesday. When the family raised objections, he said there were bruises on the body that made him suspicious.
“I saw bruises on his face and had asked a doctor about them,” Rabbi Heber recalled. “He said they were probably from his fall into the creek.”
He said he suggested to the medical examiner that he conduct a body scan of the body to avoid having to make incisions and that the medical examiner rejected the idea.
“He then left the room and when he returned he said he had just consulted with his lawyer and that he needed to do the autopsy right now,” Rabbi Heber said. “I then called our attorney and said we needed to get a court order immediately.”
He said his lawyer rushed into the medical examiner’s office with the court order a short time later — just as the medical examiner was walking to the autopsy room.
After a hearing, the temporary restraining order was made permanent, but the medical examiner then appealed to the state superior court, which ordered a hearing the next day. After a two-hour hearing, the injunction was upheld and the body was ordered released.
“As we were leaving the courtroom, the medical examiner said he was now going to appeal to the Washington State Court of Appeals,” Rabbi Heber said. “At that point, we thought things were getting out of hand.”
Political connections were then turned to in an effort to derail a further appeal. New York State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, Rep. Nita Lowey, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other elected officials were then called upon to speak with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and ask her to intervene in behalf of the family. The governor then called the medical examiner and convinced him to drop the case.
The family then flew with the body to Israel Saturday night for burial.
“This was a family that was grieving [throughout the week], but they could not grieve because according to Jewish law grieving cannot start until the burial,” Rabbi Heber said.
He added that it took the assistance of many members of the Jewish community from across the country to help the Grobois family in their time of need. And he said he hopes to work with members of the legislature in Washington to change the law so such a thing cannot happen again.