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A Free Farewell: Providing Funeral Services to the Unclaimed, Unknown, or Indigent

What happens when a person passes with no family, no funds, or no known name?

In 2015, the Warren County Coroner’s office provided for 51 burials of such persons. In that county, it is the responsibility of the county coroner’s office to take physical control of any dead persons until either the bodies are claimed by a relation or friend or the bodies are left unclaimed.

Kevin Kirby, the Warren County Coroner, has overseen 32 of such burials in this year alone, three of which were considered unclaimed bodies. Coroner Kirby waits about two weeks before burying the bodies of any of the unclaimed or indigent persons, preserving the remains in the meantime. Because Kentucky law does not allow for Kirby to cremate the remains of unclaimed bodies without a family member’s consent, he instead must keep the unclaimed bodies preserved as-is until burial, which is more expensive than cremation.

Besides being responsible for county-assisted burials through his position in the coroner’s office, Kirby also runs a funeral home in the county, J.C. Kirby & Son, through which he is able to provide the “pauper” funeral service. Each county-assisted burial consists of a simple wooden casket for the remains and a graveside burial service, for which Kirby’s office receives a $475 reimbursement from the Bowling Green-Warren County Welfare Board; in addition, Kirby pays the city of Bowling Green $100 to dig the grave.

For the less common occurrence of unclaimed bodies or unknown persons, Kirby says that his office attempts to use all possible means to either identify the person or the deceased’s relatives before burial. For the increasingly more common indigent deceased, the county-assisted funeral and burial service provides the deceased and the deceased’s family members with a funeral rite that the deceased may have otherwise not been able to afford.

Giving each of these unclaimed, unknown, or indigent persons a traditional funeral and burial service seems to be sort of a ritualistic nod to the life of the deceased. According to Kirby, “[i]t’s sad that somebody has lived a life that nobody cares or we can’t find someone. . . . It’s somebody’s son or daughter. They belong to somebody somewhere.” While it is merely the responsibility of the Warren County Coroner to provide for the simple burial of the deceased, Kirby, as well as some others, seem to have extended the traditional funeral service to those deceased who either have no family attending or would not otherwise be able to afford a funeral service.

Sometimes, despite all the economic or legal burdens, the best way to honor the lived of the unknown or unclaimed is to keep tradition alive.

Nina Banfield

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