If someone dies unexpectedly, the local medical examiner will work with local funeral homes to take care of the body and seek out family. Though in a perfect world people would all pass safely under the care of their families, sometimes things happen. In these cases, the body goes to the morgue until it’s claimed by loved ones.
There is a lot of misunderstanding around morgues and how they work to reunite families with deceased loved ones. Much of this is likely due to crime shows and scary movies that add an element of mystery to this process. In reality, these professionals work diligently to ensure each body is claimed by the family and given a proper burial.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Are Bodies Taken to the Morgue?
- How Long Can a Body Stay at the Morgue?
- Who Has Rights to a Body at a Morgue?
- Steps for Claiming a Body at a Morgue
- Claiming the Body: Frequently Asked Questions
Whether you’re wondering what happens to unclaimed bodies or how to claim a body from a morgue, you’ve come to the right place. We’re pulling back the curtain to share everything you need to know about the reality of what happens to bodies after death.
Why Are Bodies Taken to the Morgue?
First, a morgue is a place designed to store bodies safely, typically until they’re claimed by a loved one or a funeral home. These are the spaces you’re likely familiar with in crime investigation shows where detectives gather around bodies in a morgue. In reality, they’re much less intimidating.
The morgue is designed to preserve the body until it’s taken to a funeral home. These rooms are kept at a safe temperature, and they’re managed by morgue workers, medical examiners, and other death care professionals.
Why are bodies taken to the morgue rather than a funeral home? If someone passed away by any unnatural or suspicious circumstances, the body legally needs to be examined by a medical examiner or coroner. This individual determines the cause of death as well as whether there was any criminal activity involved.
In addition, if the deceased was involved in an accident or crime, their family might not yet be aware of their passing. The body stays at the morgue until their family can identify them and arrange transport to a funeral home.
How Long Can a Body Stay at the Morgue?
There is no simple answer to how long a body can stay at the morgue. This depends entirely on the cause of death and how long it takes to complete a medical exam. Once the cause of death is determined and any evidence is gathered (if necessary), the body is typically released to the family.
These medical examinations are done as quickly as possible, usually within 1-2 days. Depending on the nature of the death, they might stay longer to ensure all evidence has been gathered if there is to be a court case.
In the case of a pauper’s funeral, or if the body is not claimed by family, the body then belongs to the state. Each state has its own legal timeline for this, but usually, they will wait between 3 days to a week before making their own arrangements.
Who Has Rights to a Body at a Morgue?
At a morgue, only the next-of-kin has rights to the body. Each state has its own guidelines for how these bodies are claimed, and there is a strict legal process that’s followed. The next-of-kin needs to contact a funeral home to work with to claim the body.
Individuals are not allowed to claim bodies themselves, and they need to work with a funeral home to arrange transportation. Once the body has been legally released to the funeral home, the family chooses their wishes in regards to the final resting place.
If the deceased is not claimed within a specific period of time, their body belongs to the state. The state waits for a funeral home to pick up the body for a low-cost burial, or they might have the body buried at a state-funded cemetery.
When it comes to who’s legally responsible for funeral costs, this generally falls on the next-of-kin. In the case that no family can be contacted, the state covers these costs.
Steps for Claiming a Body at a Morgue
As mentioned above, every state has its own guidelines on how to claim a body at a morgue. While you should review your state’s specific rules, these are the general steps for claiming a body at a morgue.
Step 1: Contact the morgue
If you suspect a loved one has been in an accident or died suddenly, contact your local morgue immediately. They actively seek families after these incidents, and you will need to go in person to identify your loved one.
Follow any steps from the morgue to properly do this. They will usually check your identification as well as lead you through any legal implications. Unlike the way it’s portrayed on TV, it’s rare for medical examiners to allow family into the morgue itself. Loved ones are typically identified through photos or other markers.
Step 2: Find a funeral home
Once your loved one has been identified, contact a local funeral home. You are not permitted in most states to transport a deceased body yourself. The body will need to be released into the care of a funeral home.
Your funeral home will communicate with your local medical examiner’s office to determine the best way to transfer care. A qualified funeral home will be a huge resource during this time.
Step 3: Arrange a cremation or burial
Next, the body arrives at the funeral home for safekeeping. There is no specific timeline you must follow for the funeral, burial, or cremation. The body can be kept safely at the funeral home until you’ve made arrangements.
Your funeral home completes the forms to authorize cremation or burial of your loved one. If you wish to have the body present at the funeral, you can do that as well.
Step 4: Save your documents
Lastly, it’s important to save all documents from the medical examiner and funeral home. This is especially true if there’s a court case or any pending legal action. Keep these documents safe to protect your loved one’s records.
Claiming the Body: Frequently Asked Questions
Since there’s a lot of misunderstanding around how to claim a loved one’s body and what happens next, here are some of the most frequently asked questions. It’s important to understand reality versus myth.
Can you have an open-casket funeral after an autopsy?
While the body is at the medical examiner’s office, it likely will undergo an autopsy. This is to determine the exact cause of death, especially if there was an accident or crime. You can still arrange an open-casket service after an autopsy.
Not only do medical examiners handle this process with care, but funeral directors can also ensure the body is in suitable condition for viewing. Talk to your funeral director about your wishes.
What happens if you can’t afford a burial or cremation?
If your loved one died unexpectedly, you still have options. Not only are there direct burials or cremations to cut down on costs, but there are also often state and local charities that assist families in this situation. This is especially true if your loved one was a victim of an accident or crime.
Again, this is a time to talk to your funeral director. It’s their job to assist you with finding something within your budget.
How does the family get the death certificate?
The death certificate and other important documents are received from the funeral director. Your funeral director handles this paperwork, and they receive initial copies from the medical examiner’s office during the transportation of the body.
Finding Peace After a Loss
For many, there is a lot of fear and confusion around what happens at the morgue or medical examiner’s office. Though these are painted in a mysterious light by TV shows and films, they’re actually a respectful, professional place where the deceased are reunited with their loved ones.
With this guide above, you see that it’s actually straightforward to claim a body from a morgue. Though you’ll need the help of a funeral director, this is something that shouldn’t delay the funeral or your grieving process. Everyone deserves an honorable sendoff, and this is only one step of that ongoing process.
- Sacharczyk, Tamara. “Dead, alone, and unclaimed: Here’s what happens when someone dies without family or money.” WWLP. 28 March 2018. WWLP.com.