Unclaimed Remains

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

The Struggle for Closure at Florida's Dozier School for Boys

Arthur G. Dozier's School for Boys, which opened in Marianna, Florida, in 1897, was the first juvenile detention center for boys in the state. The institution was active for over a century until its closing in 2011. The original statutory objective of the school was

"the making of . . . not simply a place of correction, but a reform school, where the young offender of the law, separate from vicious associates, may receive careful physical, intellectual, and moral training, be reformed and restored to the community with purposes and character fitting for a good citizen . . . ."

The school from its inception accepted boys of all races, but maintained segregation between its white and black "offenders." Young white men were kept to the south side of the school, while young black men were kept to the north—next to the unmarked northern cemetery. 

Dozier's history is plagued with accusations of abuse that did not seem to affect any real longterm change. This history and testimony from survivors of the institution inspired a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, to initiate an investigation, with a plan to map the unmarked graveyard with ground-penetrating radar ("GPR"). A simple field survey lead her team to believe that the Dozier campus's northern cemetery contained more graves than the school's records provided for, and that a second cemetery existed on the south side of the campus. A permit for excavation was granted in 2013 and by 2014, Dr. Kimmerle's research indicated that there were 55 individuals buried on Dozier campus—twice the number the school had accounted for. 

The call for further investigation and its results led to discourse in the community. This was a sensitive topic, to the victims, the survivors, and family and friends of both, as well to locals without any direct connection to the school. The county, eager to clean its hands of the whole mess, tried to sell the land in 2012. The relative of a victim was able to get a judge to halt such proceedings. The people left behind by the tragedy of Dozier were hurting and wanted answers, while the locals of the area felt that the accusations being brought forth were a personal insult—they fought back by threatening to charge Dr. Kimmerle with the felony of disturbing "a human grave without authority," although no graves had been disturbed. 

The legal route also failed Dr. Kimmerle at this time. A judge denied a petition for exhumation, stating that Dr. Kimmerle's team failed to "meet the threshold for exhumation, [that] there must be more than a suggestion that an autopsy might be probative." Instead the evidence must show that exhumation shows a "good possibility that an autopsy would be revealing as to the cause of death." Judge wright cited the case Currier v. Woodlawn Cemetery, 200 N.Y. 162, 90 N.E.2d 18 (1949): "The quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed. Good and substantial reasons must be shown before disinterment is sanctioned."

While Dr. Kimmerle was able to successfully excavate and exhume the bodies at Dozier, validating the allegations of victims, survivors, and relative, the whole affair and its aftermath leaves plenty of questions behind: How was the school allowed to get away for this so long? How far does community pride go in shielding the evils happening in our own backyard? And why was respect for "the quiet of the grave" so much more important than justice? 

People have speculated on most of these questions for a lot longer than Dozier's excavation scandal has existed. One has to wonder, though—how could a judge find the graves of potential torture victims to be "quiet?" The broader concept of this question is what now plagues the community. The State has drafted and passed plans to turn the Dozier campus into a memorial while also covering "the cost of funerals, reinterment, and grave markers for the boys." Some people think that the legislature has no business getting involved in what happens to these boys' remains. Another camp may believe that these boys deserve this quiet of the grave often referenced to in the common law of human remains, and such quiet will not be found at the site where they suffered. Most everyone can agree that some memorialization is necessary, either for the individual victims, survivors, and loved ones, or to just acknowledge that something heinous occurred and was allowed.

Caitlin Stone

The Pursuit of Military Burials for Unclaimed Veteran Cremains

All across the country there are abandoned cremains sitting in funeral homes and hospitals. There has been a movement to take abandoned veteran remains and give them the proper military funeral they deserve. One of the largest organization that tracks down abandoned veteran remains is the Missing in America Project (the "Project"). The Project's mission is to locate, identify, and inter unclaimed veteran cremains in order to bury them with the honor and respect they deserve. To date, the Project has found over 12,000 cremains, identifying about 2,700 of those being veteran cremains, and interred over 2,500. 

In Nebraska, the only two members of Missing in America Project's Nebraska chapter, estimate that the ashes of hundreds of veterans go unclaimed each year. State law requires funeral homes to keep ashes for 60 days. After the 60 day waiting period and a "reasonable attempt" to contact family and friends, a funeral home can bury the remains, scatter them or throw them out. The members of the Project in Nebraska want to inform funeral homes that there's another option, and that is to hand over the remains to groups like theirs. The hope was that a new law would help convince funeral homes to hand over the unclaimed veterans ashes.

Nebraska passed the law in March which allows funeral homes and crematoriums to work with VA-affiliated groups like the Missing in America Project to identify unclaimed ashes of veterans or spouses, then turn them over if they qualify for interment in a veterans' cemetery. It was not illegal for funeral homes to turn over the unclaimed ashes before, but the new law protects them from liability if a distant family member shows up later. 

Bill Henry, one of the members of the Project's Nebraska chapter has said that the new law has not helped convince funeral homes to give him the unclaimed ashes. He says that funeral homes are still holding them and aren't really providing him with reasons why they are doing so. He said some have said they are still reviewing the new law and others have claimed to not have even heard about it. In order to make sure that everyone knows about the law and his organization he has mailed each of the nearly 300 funeral homes in the state and plans to visit each personally as fast as he can. With Henry's persistence hopefully many more veterans will get the dignified military funeral they deserve.

Emily Morris

Unclaimed Remains in the District of Columbia

The Washington Post has an interesting story about the disposition of unclaimed remains in the District of Columbia.  Also includes references to the law in Maryland:

After attempting to contact relatives and waiting three days for them to come forward, Maryland donates its unclaimed remains to medical research, declaring on a graveyard monument its “deep appreciation for those who gave unselfishly of themselves to advance medical education.”

“Maryland has always had a system,” said Ronn Wade, an official with the state Anatomy Board, which handles unclaimed remains.

Wade said the number of unclaimed bodies in the state has risen steadily in recent decades. In 1973, the state buried 60 unclaimed bodies — but last year, it handled 729. This surge, Wade said, isn’t just about population growth or poverty. Rather, life spans have lengthened and families have grown smaller, more spread out and less close-knit.

Tanya Marsh