Most people imagine that after they die, family and friends will memorialize them with a funeral or celebration of life. But unfortunately, that’s not the case for everyone who passes away.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Do Dead Bodies Go Unclaimed?
- What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies at a Funeral Home or Morgue in the US?
- What Happens to Unclaimed Cremated Remains?
Some bodies go “unclaimed” by family or friends at the morgue, the funeral home, or even a crematorium. And when a body isn’t claimed, it becomes the responsibility of the government.
So why exactly would a body go unclaimed by family members, and what happens when this occurs?
Why Do Dead Bodies Go Unclaimed?
The label of “unclaimed body” applies to people whose identities are known. Even though the morgue knows who they are, they haven’t been claimed by family or friends.
And that means there’s no one around to pay for funeral costs, like a service and burial or cremation.
The answer to why a body might go unclaimed isn’t simple. But usually, it boils down to the common causes detailed below.
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The person doesn’t have any family
Some people live alone and don’t have any remaining next of kin. In a case like this, a close friend might claim the body and arrange for final disposition. But often, the body just goes unclaimed.
The medical examiner can’t reach the family
The Medical Examiner’s Office might identify the person’s next of kin and try to reach out. But that doesn’t mean the family member or members will answer and come to claim the body.
The family waives any claim to the body
Many families in America are unable to pay for funeral expenses when a loved one dies. When they can’t afford the basic fees of caring for a body, families often waive their rights to their loved ones’ remains.
What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies at a Funeral Home or Morgue in the US?
It’s often unclear what exactly leads to a body going unclaimed. And what happens to an unclaimed body in the United States isn’t an easy answer, either.
The federal government doesn’t have a role in managing unclaimed bodies. The only nationwide policies come from the Department of Veteran Affairs, which often arranges and pays for veteran funerals, even if the body is unclaimed.
That leaves the state and regional governments to make up their own rules and regulations for managing the unclaimed. Cities, counties, and states across the nation have different systems in place.
Here are some of the things that often happen when a body goes unclaimed.
Searching for family
Before treating a body as unclaimed, the state or city has a responsibility to try and connect the body to the family.
But there are no standardized rules on how much searching the government has to do. Most states simply require a “good faith effort” to find next of kin.
Because state and city governments vary on the level of searching they require, the time a body spends in cold storage also depends on its location. Some states consider a few days long enough to attempt to locate next of kin. Others require a full month.
Unfortunately, governmental bureaucracy and lack of funding mean that many unclaimed bodies remain in storage for much longer. The funeral homes and morgues where the bodies are stored can’t afford to bury or cremate the bodies without the proper funding.
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Most cities and states cremate unclaimed bodies. They then either store, scatter, or bury the cremains. The city or state government pays for the cremation process, which is much cheaper than burial.
Most states bury or store the cremation of unclaimed bodies in collective graves or store them in columbariums.
A few cities and states, like the State of New York, bury unclaimed bodies. Hart’s Island in New York has long acted as a potter’s field for the indigent and unclaimed. Inmates from Rikers Island Prison are tasked with digging the graves and burying the dead.
In the 1800s, unclaimed bodies went to medical schools, where students would use them for dissection. This even applied to bodies that were unclaimed simply because the family couldn’t afford a funeral.
In some parts of America, this practice continues today. For example, Oregon still forwards unclaimed bodies to its medical schools. The institutions then pay for cremating the remains.
Some states, on the other hand, have banned the practice after public outcry against it.
Records of unclaimed bodies
Whether an unclaimed body is cremated, buried, or remains in storage, the state usually keeps a record of the person’s identity.
The record typically includes a full name, date, and cause of death, as well as the location of the body or cremains.
What Happens to Unclaimed Cremated Remains?
As mentioned above, most state and city governments opt to cremate unclaimed bodies because of the lower cost. Cremains are also easier to store than a body while the state is waiting to bury the dead.
And that means many funeral homes, medical facilities, and coroner’s offices have dedicated spaces for keeping unclaimed cremains.
Additionally, some families pay for their loved ones to be cremated and then fail to pick up the cremated ashes, adding to the number of urns on the shelf.
Most states and cities require funeral homes to hold unclaimed cremains for a specified period. Others hold onto unclaimed remains at the coroner’s office. The waiting time required varies by state, but it’s usually between one to three years.
This requirement is meant to give any next of kin enough time to locate and claim their family member’s remains.
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Ideally, all unclaimed cremains would find their way into the hands of a family member or friend. Unfortunately, only a portion of them do.
If the state or the funeral home can find the person’s next of kin, the ashes are usually handed over free of charge. The coroner or home provides a free urn—typically a plain cardboard or softwood box.
Most cities and states that cremate unclaimed bodies bury the ashes. Typically, they place the ashes in a collective grave with the cremains of many other people.
Los Angeles is one example of a city that buries unclaimed cremains. The city holds unclaimed ashes at the county coroner’s office for three years. If they’re still unclaimed, the city buries the ashes in a mass grave. Los Angeles performs an annual interfaith funeral service, which is a practice dating back to the 1890s.
Seattle also holds onto unclaimed cremains until a mass burial service can take place. They hold these modern pauper’s funeral services every year.
Some regions place unclaimed ashes in a columbarium, which is an above-ground storage facility for urns. A columbarium allows ashes to be stored and located more easily if family members happen to appear years later.
A few regions scatter the ashes of the unclaimed, rather than burying them. For example, the State of North Carolina scatters unclaimed cremains in the ocean after three years.
Massachusetts law allows funeral establishments to scatter unclaimed ashes after 12 months.
Unclaimed Bodies Are a Growing Problem
Unfortunately, the number of unclaimed bodies in morgues, funeral homes, and crematoriums in the United States is on the rise. An estimated 40,000 bodies go unclaimed every year. And times of nationwide crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the existing problem becomes even more pressing.
Thankfully, charities have started stepping in to help with funeral costs, and some funeral homes offer their services pro bono.
But the unclaimed body problem in the United States raises important questions about how we handle the dead. It also highlights the steep costs associated with death care, and how not everyone can afford burial in America.
An essential way that you can help with the unclaimed body problem is by making your wishes known. Prepare an end-of-life plan, and share it with your family. If you can, it’s a good idea to set aside a funeral fund, too.
- Sacharczyk, Tamara. “Dead, alone, and unclaimed: Here’s what happens when someone dies without family or money.” WWLP News. 28 March 2018. https://www.wwlp.com/news/i-team/dead-alone-and-unclaimed-heres-what-happens-when-someone-dies-without-family-or-money.
- “This is what happens to unclaimed bodies in America.” Talk Death. 30 June 2020. https://www.talkdeath.com/this-is-what-happens-to-unclaimed-bodies-in-america.
- “What happens to those who die poor or unclaimed in NYC.” The Economist. 15 June 2019. https://www.economist.com/united-states/2019/06/15/what-happens-to-those-who-die-poor-or-unclaimed-in-nyc
- “State-funded Funerals: What Happens to the Unclaimed Dead?” https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/funerals/state-funded-funerals-what-happens-to-unclaimed-dead.htm