What Happens to an Unclaimed Body?
In some counties it’s a problem that is raising the question, what happens to an unclaimed body? And furthermore, what should we do to solve the problem moving forward?
What Happens to an Unclaimed Body?

It’s hard for many of us to believe that a deceased person’s body can go unclaimed, but it’s actually remarkably common. One percent of all deaths in the United States involve an unclaimed body. That equates to roughly 34,000 unclaimed bodies every year, and it’s a growing issue. 

Who Are the Unclaimed?

Medical examiners have found that unclaimed bodies are primarily those who are low income. Because families have difficulty paying for cremation or burial they choose not to claim the body. Another commonality is that the person is estranged from their family. Some counties report that a large number of nursing home residents account for unclaimed bodies simply because records don’t show the next of kin or haven’t been accurately updated.  

Current events can also have an influence. Long before the pandemic, morgues and funeral homes were faced with a problem of a growing number of unclaimed bodies. One of the biggest reasons for the issue is the opioid epidemic. Experts note that it’s common for the bodies of those who die in rehab centers to go unclaimed. 

What is Being Done With Unclaimed Bodies

Even though unclaimed bodies are a nationwide problem there are no federal protocols for how the bodies should be handled. It’s up to states to provide guidelines for how to handle the situation. Unfortunately, the established protocols can be very vague and outdated in some states.

Because of this, many cities and counties have the ability to outline their own protocols for determining what qualifies as an unclaimed body and how to handle them. The guidelines can include taking steps to find next of kin first and foremost. This is partly being done to handle the problem of an increasing number of unclaimed bodies. 

Coroners and funeral home directors search through public records, look at police records and place ads in an effort to find family members of the deceased. They may also enlist the help of genealogists and investigators to locate the next of kin. It’s a process that can take months to complete. However, in areas where there is limited refrigeration space the time period can be much shorter.

If next of kin is found it may not change the situation because they have no obligation to claim the body. When this happens the next of kin is asked to approve that the county handle the disposal of the body and forfeit claiming the remains in the future. This is also the case if the next of kin agrees to claim the body initially but then fails to follow through. 

In most cases, local governments use direct cremation to dispose of unclaimed bodies and the cremains are stored for a set period of time. After being stored the cremains may be scattered. The Cremation Society of North America has estimated that there are currently 2 million unclaimed cremated remains in the U.S. 

Some counties elect to bury unclaimed bodies. Typically, the body is buried in an unmarked grave that is county-owned. If a family member later comes forward the body may be exhumed upon request. 

Other states allow for unclaimed bodies to be donated for medical science. There are also state laws that allow for the unclaimed bodies of veterans to be buried by third party groups. 

Unclaimed Bodies Cause Problems for Morgues, Funeral Homes and Local Governments

An increase in unclaimed bodies is a problem all-around. Morgues must store the bodies, which can be a burden if space is limited. Both morgues and funeral homes can be burdened with the task of trying to find the next of kin, which can be very time-consuming. 

Funeral homes are also responsible for storing the cremated remains of the unclaimed. Eventually, the cremains must be scattered or stored elsewhere over the long-term, something the funeral home has to arrange. 

The general public at large feels the effects of unclaimed bodies because disposal of the bodies is paid for by the local government. Costs must also be covered to:

  • Transport bodies
  • Locate the next of kin
  • Mark graves
  • Pay for urns 
  • Obtain death certificates 
  • Give family members the remains if they come forward after cremation or burial

Unclaimed dead expenses can be tens of thousands of dollars a year even for small counties that only have a few dozen instances annually. Counties are taking steps to recoup the costs by charging next of kin that are later identified and asking charitable organizations such as churches and medical research facilities to help cover the costs.

Direct Cremate helps minimize the problem of unclaimed bodies by offering extremely affordable cremation services that are less of a financial burden for families. If you have questions about the process our team can be contacted directly by phone, email or text.

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