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News / Business / Clark County Business

Death certificate debacle: Communication, software, state rules cause delay after Vancouver woman’s husband dies

'I was powerless to resolve the problem,' Cheryl Irvin says. She was unable to move forward to cremation.

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 10, 2024, 6:07am
3 Photos
Steve and Cheryl Irvin pictured together.
Steve and Cheryl Irvin pictured together. (Contributed by Cheryl Irvin) Photo Gallery

When Cheryl Irvin’s 72-year-old husband died at their home near Vancouver from a heart attack Feb. 25, she expected to obtain his death certificate, cremate him and hold a memorial within a week. Instead, his body was refrigerated at a funeral home for a month. The memorial went forward with an empty urn.

Cheryl Irvin couldn’t proceed with cremation until Steve Irvin’s primary care clinician at Urgent Medical Center signed his death certificate. But she was unable to reach the doctor.

What should have been a simple process turned into an odyssey — complicated by communication gaps, software changes and state requirements. Cheryl Irvin finally obtained her husband’s death certificate and had him cremated March 26. Now, she wants her hard-earned lesson to help others with end-of-life planning.

“I am a planner and a preparer, so I had everything fairly well mapped out,” Cheryl Irvin said. “When you begin the process, you expect it to take maybe five to seven days to get things taken care of, from the cremation to the issuing of a death certificate. But I could do nothing but feel frustrated day after day that I was powerless to resolve the problem.”

Recent changes

Typically, when a person dies of natural causes, the death registration process begins when a family member, friend or medical professional informs a funeral home of the death, according to Washington state law.

The law states the deceased must either be embalmed or refrigerated within 24 hours of death. From there, the funeral home collects the necessary death information, then communicates it to the deceased’s health care provider through the state’s vital records software for a signature. Cremation can generally occur within three to five days after the proper permit is obtained from the Washington State Department of Health.

Clark County Public Health’s vital records office also processes orders for death certificates, but it can only provide copies that have already been completed and are available in the statewide database, according to spokeswoman Marissa Armstrong.

The Department of Health, which manages the statewide database of birth and death certificates, consolidated vital records to a single online system earlier this year, said Katie Hutchinson, state registrar for the agency.

“DOH needed to replace the existing Electronic Death Registration System as it did not meet current system and security standards for housing confidential data,” Hutchinson wrote in an email to The Columbian. “DOH was maintaining two systems for registration of vital records. This resource was intensive and not sustainable.”

The health department was already using the Washington Health and Life Events System, known as WHALES, for birth records and moved its death records registration to the same system Feb. 7.

The state requires all deaths in Washington, excluding fetal deaths, to be reported electronically. The Department of Health notified physicians, funeral home directors, medical examiners and coroners of the software switch in January 2022.

Leading up to the change, the health department provided live demonstrations of the system, live training sessions and written training materials. Training was also provided the month before and two weeks after it went live.

As of a few weeks ago, only 10,000 out of 20,000 users were enrolled in the system, Hutchinson said.

“DOH is also working with partners across the state to target messaging to those not enrolled in the system to date. DOH is encouraging those with legal authority (medical certifiers) to enroll in the system and access training now and not wait until they find themselves needing to certify the death of a patient. This will reduce delays for families,” Hutchinson said.

The health department said it is hosting a new series of training sessions for users to get enrolled beginning Monday.

Monthlong process

Cheryl Irvin first called her husband’s primary care doctor to sign the death certificate but couldn’t reach him. (The Columbian’s attempts to contact him for this story were unsuccessful.)

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Then, Cheryl Irvin called her husband’s cardiologist at Vancouver Clinic. As a specialist, he’s not among the primary care providers who have the ability to sign death certificates, Vancouver Clinic spokeswoman Kelly Love said.

So Cheryl Irvin contacted her husband’s oncologist at OHSU Hospital in Portland. Because Steve Irvin was treated there in the past year, Oregon law allowed his oncologist to complete the death certificate. But Cheryl Irvin said she learned the oncologist was not yet enrolled in Washington’s death records system, so he could not immediately sign the death certificate.

A hospital spokeswoman said she could not talk specifically about Cheryl Irvin’s situation before The Columbian’s deadline. But generally, OHSU Hospital Decedent Affairs works with the Oregon State Vital Records Office to complete death certificates for patients who die at the hospital. She said it’s not uncommon for the process to take some time due to the enrollment and registration process, and schedules and availability of staff involved in that process.

It took about a month for Steve Irvin’s oncologist to gain access to Washington’s system to sign his death certificate, Cheryl Irvin said.

During that month of waiting, her life was on hold.

She doesn’t want others to endure the same delay. She encourages people to check with their doctors to make sure they have access to the state’s death records software.

Steve Irvin, who was born and raised in Vancouver, served in the U.S. Navy before he joined the Vancouver Fire Department in 1982. He retired after 24 years.

He and his friends would often take trips to a tiny fishing village in Alaska; this year, they plan to spread his ashes there.

“I just feel a huge sense of relief,” Cheryl Irvin said. “It’s bad enough to lose a loved one, but then to begin to learn the whole process, is more than you ever want to know.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.