Families sometimes ask Dr. Lindsey Thomas if they can see their deceased loved ones at the morgue.

Thomas, the appointed medical examiner for Dakota County, tries to discourage them.

"We explain that we don't have a good place for it," she said.

The only space she has for such personal and emotional rituals is the intake room or a hallway near the coolers where bodies are stored.

That's just one of the challenges presented by the dated, labyrinthine space in which Thomas and the rest of the staff at the Midwest Regional Medical Examiner's Office work.

After years of population growth in the eight counties the office serves, the number of deaths and investigations has climbed to the point where the facility in the basement of Regina Medical Center in Hastings is at capacity.

The morgue was last remodeled in the mid-1980s. Last year, the office investigated 1,883 deaths and performed more than 360 autopsies. Both measures are more than double what they were in 1997.

"We're a little out of space here," Thomas said.

There is cooler space for six bodies -- not enough some days, although the daily average is two bodies.

There used to be one refrigerator for preserving samples of body fluids or tissues. Now there are two, both in the autopsy room.

Record storage areas and closets for clothing, medications and other items that come into the morgue with a body are full.

And there are safety concerns, Thomas said. Among them: The morgue lacks mechanical lifts for bodies, which means medical examiners must hoist bodies from the lower level of the cooler by hand.

"I'm not getting any thinner, and neither are most of the decedents," Thomas said. "It's kind of a health and safety issue with our current space."

Dakota County Administrator Brandt Richardson said, "Once you visit, you know it can't go on for too long like this."

But figuring out what to do next isn't easy.

Eight counties -- Carver, Chisago, Dakota, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston and Scott -- have a joint agreement with Regina Medical Center to pay about $1.1 million annually for the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office.

The morgue is on a year-to-year contract with the hospital.

Dakota County is studying costs and benefits of different plans, including renting space somewhere else, building something at another hospital or building a stand-alone morgue and medical examiner's office.

"It's an important and mandated service," said Heidi Welsch of Dakota County's Office of Planning and Analysis. "It's very important that we're prepared so that we can make this transition. We're still just trying to feel out what makes the most sense."

One place the county will be looking for guidance is the north metro area.

Anoka County built a $7.2 million, 19,000-square-foot building in 2008 to move the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office out of the basement at Mercy Hospital.

The new facility in Ramsey serves a smattering of counties, all of which pay service fees to help cover the costs.

If such a facility becomes reality in the south metro area, Thomas said, she would like two, if not three, autopsy suites. Right now the morgue only has one, albeit with two tables.

That sometimes makes scheduling tissue and organ donation tricky because that cannot occur while another autopsy is in progress. It also makes it tough to seclude bodies that are decomposing or those who have died of infectious disease.

A separate entrance, if not a separate building, would be another item on the wish list and an improvement over the current arrangement.

"Someone's coming in to get their mammogram, right next to the funeral home that's bringing out a body," Thomas said, adding that Regina Medical Center has been very tolerant for years. "It's hard to share a building with people who aren't doing what we're doing."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056