The Complicated Fates of the Unidentified or Unclaimed

Funeral Industry News November 1, 2023
Unidentified Unclaimed Remains

The Complicated Fates of the Unidentified or Unclaimed

What happens to unidentified or unclaimed bodies? Depends on the state, of course. In this, as in so many other matters of deathcare, there is no universal process to follow. Each municipality has its regulations to observe.

It’s depressing to think about dying without survivors to mourn your passing, but it actually happens with some frequency. Each year in the US, medical examiners and authorities process roughly 4,400 unidentified bodies.  Of these, approximately 1,000 will remain unidentified after another year. By no means common, but not exactly rare, either — particularly in urban areas where the population density is higher, and such cases are only expected to increase.

Once upon a time, the simpler solution was to donate remains to medical or other educational programs, but no more: in recent times institutions have raised ethical concerns, and many are no longer accepting unidentified or unclaimed remains, refusing them outright.

ME’s or FD’s?

Medical examiners’ offices are usually first to handle unidentified remains. Typically, such bodies are kept in cold storage at the county morgue as staff work to identify the deceased for weeks or months… but not always. In some parts of the country, a single funeral home may remove up to 40-50 unidentified bodies in a year (or more) while assuming responsibility for long-term storage as well as the process of identification, and/or the cost of disposition, which may or may not be reimbursed by the municipality, in part or in full.

Finding a name to go with the remains is a matter of human dignity, yes, but it’s also a practical issue: next of kin (hopefully) assume responsibility for the remains, including disposition. Where that isn’t a possibility, it would seem to be if not an easy fix, at least a straightforward one, to cremate the unidentified. It’s the more economical choice, obviously: where even a bare-bones burial might cost thousands, cremation for the indigent could be several hundred dollars. The problem is that some states require the signature of the next of kin to carry it out… making what ought to be a simple issue far more difficult – and expensive — to resolve.

Even in Manhattan, where you’d expect to find an advanced system in place with an eye toward volume efficiency, they will not cremate their unidentified dead. Not even during COVID. Instead, the unnamed are interred on Hart Island, Manhattan’s potters field, a repository for nameless or unclaimed multitudes of dead buried in unmarked mass graves.

[CSI] Who are you? [/CSI]

It is getting a bit easier for authorities to solve identity mysteries, however.

In the early 2000’s, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) was conceived.  A national database providing free supportive resources to aid, in part, in the identification of remains, NamUS supplies no-charge forensic testing and investigative support, as well as required training, to the families of missing persons as well as to law enforcement and medical examiners and coroners.

An initiative of the National Institute of Justice, NamUS was intended to become a tool for the criminal justice system to seize the power of forensic DNA technology.  It continues to develop and evolve with that technology’s advancement, today linking unidentified and Missing Persons databases and including an analytical division and a fingerprint unit.

Named, but unclaimed

And then there are those without the choice: we know who they are, as do their families; the next of kin, however much they might wish to, simply cannot afford to cover the expense of final arrangements. Wherever the nameless and claimless fall, their numbers tend to skew toward the indigent and homeless.

But our graves are all ultimately the same size. Known or not, we are all buried (literally or figuratively) with our identities.