written by Sarah Beste
With the holidays coming, as morbid as it may seem, I can’t help but think of the instances during my education and career(s) that I’ve come across what seems to me an unfortunate and lonely situation – going unclaimed. The first time I encountered the unclaimed dead was when I started out in pathology, the hospital I was working at was shutting down. Part of my duties was to clean up and gather equipment and specimens being taken to the local hospital that was absorbing us. Two months before the doors closed permanently, I noticed that there was someone still in the morgue wall fridge. The date of death was a couple of months before then. This someone was a man. After bringing our new morgue resident to my manager’s attention, I made sure to go down there at least once a week to see if he was still there, to check on him. It wasn’t until about one week before the hospital would be closed for business that he vacated our morgue. I was told he was being taken care of by the state.
This was a juxtaposition to what I had confronted during my brief career in the funeral industry. The deceased that rolled through the doors of the funeral home always had at least one person who claimed them as theirs and made sure they were cared for until burial or cremation. Even in mortuary school, it didn’t occur to me to question where the bodies came from and how they were so lucky as to be practice for future embalmers. As naïve as it sounds, it was really only until I started working in the a hospital setting that I discovered that the state government had a hand in burying or cremating the unclaimed human remains. The questions that began to populate my brain were: who are these unclaimed people, and what circumstances need to arise for one to become “unclaimed”?
Maybe it’s an ideal for me to think that I won’t become unclaimed when I die. It doesn’t fit in my definition of a good death, which includes my family taking care of my remains after I die. But the reality of not being able to afford a funeral that is $1000 and up upfront is not far-fetched for anyone in a lower-middle class household that may have a difficult time putting money aside because of the amount of bills that take priority to live. Also, there is that possible reality where I die in place far away from my family, and for whatever reason my family cannot be reached. Because of this, I would imagine one reason for leaving remains unclaimed is socioeconomic in nature; the other is a matter of proximity to kin in both physical proximity and possibly mental or emotional proximity. Caitlin Doughty goes into detail about in a chapter of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, funerals can be an unexpected and costly. In this same chapter, Dougherty summarizes Jessica Mitford’s expose American Way of Death which Mitford wrote to alert the public on what was described as the “abuses of the American funeral industry” which included over-charging the bereaved for funeral services. To that end, even if the decedent had family, who’s to say their family could withstand the financial burden of a funeral at that given time.
When I was working in a pathology department in Southfield, it wasn’t an uncommon situation where we called state agency to take care of an unclaimed body. There was one that took so long to get a response that the body broke down so much it was more liquid than solid. In an article published in 2014, Kevin Dietz for ClickOnDetroit wrote about the issues faced by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office with regards to their unclaimed. The population of unclaimed bodies fills almost two freezers because even though that one instance in Southfield took longer than expected (within a year) the WCME finds themselves holding the unclaimed deceased for longer. The freezer is the only thing stopping the bodies from turning to liquid. According to the article, a basic burial costs $750 with $450 taken care of by the state of Michigan. The rest of the cost is passed down to Wayne County. However, like the article explains the county’s budget for burials runs dry quickly and cannot take care of all the unclaimed.
A steady population of the unclaimed deceased is an issue that doesn’t have a simple answer, with the reasons for being unclaimed slightly different on an individual basis. It seems though there are common themes: financial hardship and familial ties. Hundreds of years from now, how would this state of affairs be interpreted?
Burns, Gus (2014) Coalition releases names of 146 unclaimed Wayne County dead awaiting burial, some for years. Accessed December 1, 2017. http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2014/06/coalition_releases_names_of_14.html
Dietz, Kevin (2014) Unclaimed bodies pile up at Wayne County morgue:Wayne County can’t afford to bury bodies left behind by families. Accessed December 1, 2017.
Doughty, Caitlin. Smoke gets in your eyes: and other lessons from the crematory. WW Norton & Company, 2014.
(2014) Memorial Service Held For 200 People Whose Bodies Went Unclaimed. Accessed December 1, 2017 http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2014/07/09/memorial-service-to-be-held-for-200-people-whose-bodies-went-unclaimed/
https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/local/detroit/unclaimed-bodies-pile-up-at-wayne-county-morgue_20151201151557169 (has way to donate to wayne county)
Mitford, Jessica. The American way of death revisited. Vintage, 2000.