When someone dies, their next of kin (or someone else with legal authority) usually makes their funeral arrangements. However, it’s not always clear who someone’s next of kin is. It’s thus not uncommon for hospital morgues and funeral homes to come into possession of unclaimed bodies.
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What happens to unclaimed bodies? As this overview will explain, there isn’t one nationwide or universal procedure for handling situations such as this. Additionally, the responsibilities of hospital morgues or mortuaries in these circumstances usually aren’t the same as the responsibilities of funeral homes.
That said, all the examples this blog covers will make it clear that most state, county, and city lawmakers appreciate the importance of establishing respectful processes and policies for disposing of unclaimed bodies.
Even when it’s impossible to identify an unclaimed body, it’s still crucial to remember that all people deserve proper treatment after death, even if we don’t know their names.
What Do Hospital Morgues Do With Unclaimed Bodies?
It’s important to begin by noting that the way hospital morgues handle unclaimed bodies varies from one state to another.
The following are a few examples to help you get a general sense of common procedures, but depending on where you live, these descriptions might not perfectly match the procedure in your state.
When someone dies in Virginia, the primary law enforcement agency of the city or county in which they passed away is responsible for identifying and notifying their next of kin within 10 days. If they can’t do so, and the next of kin (or anyone else with the legal authority to make the necessary arrangements) doesn’t claim the body within 10 days either, the attorney for the county or city in which the person resided will request that an order be entered into the court granting the hospital permission to transfer the body to a funeral home or similar establishment.
(Note: If it’s unclear where a person resided at the time of their death, someone else will facilitate this process. This may be the attorney for the city or county in which the hospital that has custody of the body is located.)
The funeral home staff now has the authority to dispose of the body. Later, this blog will describe how they may go about doing so.
When a hospital assumes custody of an unclaimed body in Florida, they must first take “reasonable” steps to try identifying it and contacting any relatives. They must also attempt to determine if the deceased qualifies for burial in a national cemetery due to being a veteran. If they discover the deceased does qualify for such a burial, they’re also responsible for making the proper arrangements.
However, if the deceased doesn’t appear to be a veteran, no one claims the body, and those investigating the death can’t track down anyone legally authorized to claim it after making a reasonable effort to do so, in Florida, various institutions and facilities can request custody of unclaimed bodies for research purposes. These may be medical schools, teaching hospitals, and similar institutions. Once they no longer have use for the body, they need to make arrangements for cremation.
A coroner will typically perform an autopsy or examination when a hospital assumes custody of an unclaimed body in South Carolina. After the initial examination, if no one claims the body, the coroner must notify a state board consisting of faculty members of several South Carolina medical universities.
If the board accepts the body, they must preserve it for 30 days. After 30 days elapse and no one has identified the next of kin, the board must then immediately notify the State Law Enforcement Division.
They’ll enter the deceased’s DNA profile into an indexing system. If another 30 days pass after they’ve entered this information, and they still haven’t determined who has the legal authority to make funeral arrangements, the medical university preserving the body has the right to use it for research or similar purposes. They’ll cremate the body once they no longer have use for it.
However, sometimes the board doesn’t accept a body. When this happens, the coroner is responsible for conducting a reasonable investigation to find their next of kin. If they’re unable to do so, they need to preserve the body for at least 30 days, after which they can arrange for its cremation.
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While Maryland’s policies for handling unclaimed bodies bear some similarities with those of other states, Maryland’s process tends to be much quicker than most.
When a public officer is unable to identify an unclaimed body or find their next of kin, they must notify the Anatomy Board. In the meantime, they can refrigerate the body to preserve it. If they do so, the Board will wait to transfer the body to a morgue until 72 hours after their death has elapsed.
That said, not all public officers in possession of unclaimed bodies have the facilities necessary to refrigerate them. In these cases, the Board can transfer a body to a morgue as soon as possible. Once at the morgue, they’ll refrigerate it, and leave it refrigerated until 72 hours have passed since the time of death.
After 72 hours have passed, the Board will arrange for the body to be embalmed. They may then distribute it to medical schools and similar institutions if they please.
What Do Funeral Homes Do With Unclaimed Bodies?
As with hospital morgues, laws regarding how funeral homes must dispose of dead bodies also vary from one state to another. Consider these examples:
Washington, D.C. funeral homes that come into the custody of unclaimed bodies technically must cremate them. After doing so, the law requires them to store the cremains in labeled containers and bury them under marked graves within a 50-mile radius of the city.
That said, an investigation revealed that some D.C. funeral homes might not actually follow this procedure correctly. Journalists have uncovered that the cremains of hundreds of unclaimed D.C. bodies have been buried beneath unmarked graves in a Baltimore cemetery.
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The question of “What happens to unclaimed bodies?” is a sensitive one for state lawmakers. That’s why sometimes these laws can change over time.
Consider the example of Massachusetts. Sometimes a medical center will assume possession of an unclaimed body after attempts to find the next of kin are unsuccessful. However, if the medical center doesn’t wish to assume custody of a particular unclaimed body, they’ll contact funeral homes and request that they assume possession of it instead.
Funeral directors will often conduct their own investigations in these circumstances. They strive to identify the next of kin themselves because, up until very recently, only a family member or legal guardian could authorize the cremation of an unclaimed body. This resulted in some funeral homes storing unclaimed bodies for several years.
A recent change to the state law now allows local boards of health to authorize cremation when a funeral director can’t find an unclaimed body’s family member or legal guardian. Lawmakers made the change to address a “public health issue” that arises when funeral homes have to store unclaimed bodies until finding someone with the right to authorize cremation.
That said, because the change is so recent, some funeral directors have pointed out that many local boards of health don’t even know they now have this authority.
Florida is unique in that the laws regarding how funeral homes must dispose of unclaimed bodies can vary from one county to another. Some counties didn’t even have policies for these situations until recently.
For example, one medical examiner’s officer handles unclaimed body cases for five counties. Cities within these counties may account for the eventual costs of burying or cremating unclaimed bodies.
In Jacksonville, one funeral home has the city’s contract for these cases. After the medical examiner’s office reasonably searches for someone with the legal authority to make funeral arrangements for an unclaimed body, if their efforts are unsuccessful, and no institution wants the body, they turn the body over to the funeral home, which will use funds from Jacksonville’s budget to bury or cremate it.
Sometimes they’ll transfer cremated remains to Jacksonville’s Social Services Division. There they will remain for several years until someone claims or identifies them.
However, the Social Services Division can’t hold on to cremated remains forever. Eventually, they may have to scatter ashes in Jacksonville’s common grave.
What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies? One Question, Many Answers
Although these examples illustrate how different procedures for handling unclaimed bodies can be from one state to another, they also illustrate some key similarities. Specifically, they show how a direct burial or direct cremation is uncommon when a morgue or funeral home comes into possession of an unclaimed body.
Those involved in these processes know they have an important responsibility: taking all necessary steps in their attempts to find an unclaimed body’s next of kin. These examples simply describe what might happen when they’re unable to do so.
- “§ 32.1-309.2. Disposition of unclaimed dead body; how expenses paid.” VIRGINIA LAW, Commonwealth of Virginia, law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title32.1/chapter8.1/section32.1-309.2/
- “Anatomy Board.” ANNOTATED CODE OF MARYLAND, State of Maryland, health.maryland.gov/bom/pdf/TITLE_5_HEALTH_GENERAL.pdf
- Davis, Simon. “This Is What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies in Washington, DC.” VICE, VICE MEDIA GROUP, 6 April 2015, www.vice.com/en/article/9bze43/this-is-what-happens-to-unclaimed-bodies-in-washington-dc-406
- “MEDICAL EXAMINERS; DISPOSITION OF DEAD BODIES.” THE FLORIDA SENATE, State of Florida, www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2012/Chapter406/All
- Schwan, Henry. “Unclaimed body of Framingham woman to be cremated.” The MetroWest Daily News, USA TODAY NETWORK, 1 July 2019, www.metrowestdailynews.com/news/20190701/unclaimed-body-of-framingham-woman-to-be-cremated
- Stepzinski, Teresa. “Each year in Jacksonville, hundreds of bodies go unclaimed. But they don’t go unmourned.” Jacksonville.com, USA TODAY NETWORK, 21 April 2017, www.jacksonville.com/metro/news/2017-04-21/each-year-jacksonville-hundreds-bodies-go-unclaimed-they-don-t-go-unmourned
- “Title 17 - Criminal Procedures.” South Carolina Legislature, South Carolina Legislative Services Agency, www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t17c005.php
- “Title 44 - Health.” South Carolina Legislature, South Carolina Legislative Services Agency, www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t44c043.php