Death and the Economy: Too Many Unclaimed Dead Bodies for the Body Farm…

Indigent Burials Are on the Rise
Katie Zezima, The New York Times (October 11, 2009)

Regular readers of the Death Reference Desk will recognize that the nationwide increase in indigent burials is a significant trend. Since this summer, when Death Ref launched, we have routinely posted articles on the uptick in unclaimed dead bodies under the Death and the Economy category.

The lead from this most recent New York Times article sums up the entire situation:

Coroners and medical examiners across the country are reporting spikes in the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burials, with states, counties and private funeral homes having to foot the bill when families cannot.

What makes this article a little different than the others is that it presents some hard facts and figures on the wave of unclaimed bodies.

  • Oregon has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of unclaimed bodies over the past few years.
  • About a dozen states now subsidize the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, including Illinois, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Financing in Oregon comes from fees paid to register the deaths with the state. The state legislature in June voted to raise the filing fee for death certificates to $20 from $7, to help offset the increased costs of state cremations, which cost $450.
  • Already in 2009, Wisconsin has paid for 15 percent more cremations than it did last year.
  • Boone County, Mo., hit its $3,000 burial budget cap last month, and took $1,500 out of a reserve fund to cover the rest of the year.
  • The medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., Dr. Carl Schmidt, bought a refrigerated truck after the morgue ran out of space. The truck, which holds 35 bodies, is currently full, Dr. Schmidt said. “We’ll buy another truck if we have to,” he said.

These numbers present an interesting unclaimed dead body index, but the following point really jumped out at me:

  • In Tennessee, medical examiner and coroners’ offices donate unclaimed remains to the Forensic Anthropological Research Center, known as the “Body Farm,” where students study decomposition at the University of Tennessee. The facility had to briefly halt donations because it had received so many this year…

The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee was specifically built to study how dead bodies decompose in order to assist criminal investigations. The Body Farm needs, by its very definition, dead bodies to operate; even it (a place which requires corpses to function) had to stop accepting unclaimed bodies because there were too many of them.

I want to stress this particular point: There were/are too many unclaimed dead bodies for even the Body Farm…a place solely built to study dead bodies.

It is difficult to say where this situation goes next. I don’t expect to see the unclaimed corpse trend reverse anytime soon and, indeed, I expect it to go even higher. What I do think will happen, down the road, is that more and more of these unclaimed bodies will end up in bio-medical tissue products. But that is a post for another day.

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