Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Unclaimed Dead Bodies and the US Economy

No funeral money? What to do
By Geoff Williams, U.S. News & World Report (May 30, 2013)
What’s worse than dying? Maybe dying broke.

It has been a while since an unclaimed-dead-bodies-continue-to-be-a-problem story appeared in the news. Within weeks of the Death Reference Desk launching in July 2009 (four more years! four more years!) we were already amassing all kinds of terrible news items on not just unclaimed dead bodies left at the morgue but next-of-kin choosing to leave a dead body unclaimed because they couldn’t afford the various fees which came with claiming a body. This recent article by Geoff Williams at U.S. News & World Report focuses on the numerous financial obstacles confronting many, many people when arranging a funeral, but I was struck by the re-emergence of the unclaimed dead body narrative. Williams introduces the unclaimed dead body problem this way:

It’s a serious problem that seems to have grown worse over the years and one that spiked during the recession. There is no organization that tracks unclaimed bodies, but coroners throughout the country, in local news stories, have reported that the numbers are climbing. In 2011, Oregon cremated 30 percent more unclaimed corpses than the year before. In 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the coroner asked the county to create a special cemetery for unclaimed bodies due to a lack of dignified space to put the remains.

The problems involving unclaimed dead bodies became so rampant four years ago that we created a Death Reference Desk tag for unclaimed bodies. You can read those stories here.

And, as most readers will figure out, the US spike in unclaimed dead bodies is largely due to the economic recession. Williams succinctly sums up that situation. Not coincidentally, Death Ref also started a Death + the Economy section at the same time that the unclaimed bodies tag was born.

One thing is certain. In the decades to come, historians will look back at the economic straits currently being experienced (around the world, really) and make a point of discussing how dead bodies went uncollected.

That historical situation will give people pause, but only until another more exciting story comes along and diverts everyone’s attention.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

(Repost From 2009) Governor of RI to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse

R.I. governor vetoes ‘domestic partners’ burial bill
Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal, (November 10, 2009)

This post first ran in November 2009. We’re linking back to it again today in anticipation of this week’s US Supreme Court cases regarding same-sex marriage. Most people do no realize the legal obstacles same-sex partners often face when attempting to claim their partner’s corpse given the lack of either a marriage license or any statutory recognition of the relationship. This 2009 story from Rhode Island demonstrates all the issues. See our section on same-sex partners for more information. Two final notes. Donald Carcieri is no longer Rhode Island’s Governor and in January 2010 the RI Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

(From 2009) Governor of RI to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse

R.I. governor vetoes ‘domestic partners’ burial bill
Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal, (November 10, 2009)

This post first ran in November 2009. We encourage you to check out this post again, after President Obama’s recently announced support for same-sex marriage. Most people do no realize the legal obstacles same-sex partners often face when attempting to claim their partner’s corpse given the lack of either a marriage license or any statutory recognition of the relationship. This 2009 story from Rhode Island demonstrates all the issues. See our section on same-sex partners for more information. Two final notes. Donald Carcieri is no longer Rhode Island’s Governor and in January 2010 the RI Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics

Cook County Gives Unclaimed Dead Bodies a Two Week Notice (sort of…)

Under Recent Policy, Cook County Begins Donating Unclaimed Bodies after 2 Weeks
Cadavers that are left in morgue are given to medical research
Becky Schlikerman, William Lee and Ronnie Reese, Chicago Tribune (October 04, 2011)


Medical Examiner: Families Who Object to Body Donation Can Opt for Burial
Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Tribune (October 05, 2011)

There was a bit of a dead body tug-of-war this week in Chicago. According to an October 4 article in the Chicago Tribune, any dead body left unclaimed for two weeks in the Medical Examiner’s office will be handed over to the Illinois Anatomical Gift Association.

But wait, that’s not totally true.

According to an October 5 article in the Chicago Tribune, the Medical Examiner’s office will not donate any unclaimed body to the Anatomical Gift Association when the ME’s office knows that the next-of-kin cannot afford to have the dead body claimed and the next-of-kin want a burial.

Here is the bigger issue in this story: the overall costs for retrieving a body from a Medical Examiner’s office have become too expensive for many families.

We started covering this situation in 2009, when the Death Reference Desk launched. You can look over all those previous posts in the Death + the Economy section.

More and more county morgues across America are dealing with not only unclaimed dead bodies, but unclaimed dead bodies and families who know exactly where said dead body is located but can’t afford to do anything about it.

As a result, the Cook County story is hardly surprising.

Given the economic difficulties more and more American families face, this story represents not an anomaly but the future.

For more on Medical Examiners and their work, watch the fantastic Frontline documentary Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America

Cemeteries Death + Art / Architecture Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Where New York’s Unclaimed Dead Bodies Get Buried

Artist’s Study of Island Brings the Dead to Life
Adam Geller, Associated Press (October 30, 2010)


Hart Island Project
Melinda Hunt

This is a really compelling article about a New York burial ground for unclaimed bodies. Adam Geller, from the Associated Press, wrote a lengthy piece about both Hart Island (the cemetery) and artist Melinda Hunt, who turned Hart Island into a fascinating artistic project.

It’s a great read. You will find similar kinds of articles in the Death + The Economy section of Death Ref. There is no shortage of unclaimed dead bodies these days.

At top is a short section from a documentary entitled Hart Island: An American Cemetery.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Minnesota’s Extra End-of-Life Legal Hoops for Same-Sex Partners

Editorial: ‘Final Wishes’ Veto is Cold, Calculating
At time of death, we can be kinder to same-sex couples.
Star Tribune (May 24, 2010)

Last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have given same-sex partners in long term relationships the legal right to the other partner’s dead body for funeral arrangements and final disposition of the remains. I wrote about the veto on Death Ref (Governor of MN to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse) and discussed how Pawlenty’s decision was very similar to a veto issued by the Governor of Rhode Island.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has now weighed in on the veto with an Editorial. I totally agree with what the Editorial Board says and with its critique of Pawlenty’s rationale for vetoing the bill.

Here is the Editorial’s key section:

“Currently a person can, by executing a will, designate who shall be empowered to control final disposition of his or her remains,” Pawlenty wrote in his letter explaining his veto. “This bill therefore addresses a nonexistent problem.”


That’s not the reality, say some who have lived through the death of a partner, only to face technical entanglements that kept them from carrying out their final wishes.


“We had done what we thought was everything we could possibly do,” said Tim Reardon of Golden Valley, recalling the legal preparations he and his partner Eric Mann made before Mann’s death in 2006. “The myth is that you can legally take care of all that stuff.”


Reardon’s inability to carry out Mann’s wishes, until his partner’s understanding parents intervened, is an example of why the bill is needed. “To have to hear, after your partner is dead and you’re absolutely physically and emotionally spent, somebody say, ‘I’m sorry, your relationship is not recognized,’ it strikes this deep kind of disbelief. It’s just such a crazy violation of our rights, our dignity, of our respect.”


It’s heartless to put our fellow citizens through such heartache. And it’s unfair to make same-sex couples hire attorneys to get the same rights as married couples.

Governor Pawlenty’s veto is part of a larger battle that will lose the war. Marriage and all its benefits, including the right to a deceased, same-sex partner’s corpse, is on the horizon.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Governor of MN to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse

Pawlenty Vows Veto of Same-Sex Measure
Jason Hoppin, Pioneer Press (May 13, 2010)

Oh Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota. I know that you think you’ve got a chance at the 2012 Republican Presidential ticket but, alas, you’ll be disappointed. In all honesty, I don’t know who will be the GOP candidate but it won’t be you, that much I know. So instead of helping gay and lesbian Minnesotans in committed, long term relationships cope with a partner’s death you go ahead and veto a completely practical, sensible bill.

I am referring here to Minnesota Senate Bill No. 341 which, among other things, would allow same-sex domestic partners to claim their dead partner’s body in order to make funeral arrangements. Here is the bill’s language:

Subd. 2. Determination of right to control and duty of disposition.
(a) The right to control the disposition of the remains of a deceased person, including the location and conditions of final disposition, unless other directions have been given by the decedent pursuant to subdivision 1, vests in, and the duty of final disposition of the body devolves upon, the following in the order of priority listed:

The list includes 1.) Wills and Legal Instruments 2.) Spouses 3.) Domestic Partners and other groups such as children. It is the third group, domestic partners, which Bill 341 added and it is the reason Governor Pawlenty (by his own admission) vetoed it. Pawlenty’s rationale was that since same-sex couples can establish Wills or Health Directives in which a same-sex partner is named as the sole decision maker then the law was unnecessary.

In a sense Governor Pawlenty is correct but only so far as this means same-sex couples have to jump through a hoop that married straight couples do not. Furthermore, this law would have made the entire funeral arrangement process and final disposition of the dead body a lot simpler. As the law currently stands in Minnesota, any same-sex couple without explicit legal documents stating the couples’ final disposition wishes faces a potential legal challenge from next of kin. If the family of a gay man or lesbian woman does not like or even acknowledge the same-sex partner then that person can be legally excluded from the entire funeral.

This is a situation that funeral directors confronted quite a bit during the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a terrible scenario in which the body in the casket can literally become a dividing line. The Minnesota Senate Bill would have gone a long way towards simplifying how same-sex couples can claim their deceased partner’s body.

One day, and it will be in my own lifetime, these legal forms of discrimination and the individuals who supported them will look absolutely barbaric. This much I also know.

So there you go Governor Pawlenty. You’re not going to get the GOP nomination and you’re acting like a completely intolerant, insensitive brute. But at least you’re in good company: the Governor of Rhode Island did the same exact thing last November and he too will never be President of the United States of America.

Death + the Economy

Minneapolis Indigent Burials Increasing

Indigent burials, and cost to public, on rise
Kevin Duchschere, Star Tribune (December 27, 2009)

This is a story which persists in the news. County morgues all across America continue to deal with unclaimed dead bodies. I have been writing about these cases on Death Ref’s Death + the Economy section.

Minneapolis is the featured city this time (my home for many years) and the Hennepin County Morgue. As always, I will continue to track these stories for the Death Reference Desk.

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Some Unclaimed Dead Bodies Buried in Detroit

Detroit finds dignity in death
Poppy Harlow, (November 16, 2009)

This article is a few weeks old so it isn’t breaking news. That said, I just noticed the video and watched it. The images of all the unclaimed bodies stacked up in the morgue freezer is a tragedy. I’ve been covering the unclaimed body situation in Detroit (as well as across America) in the Death + the Economy section of Death Ref since the summer of 2009.

It is a telling moment for any nation at a crossroads with itself when a charity is started not to help the living in need but the dead. Of course the living still need to bury the dead (so this isn’t clearly a life vs. death issue) but the formation of the May We Rest in Peace charity to help bury the unclaimed dead bodies in Detroit is a sign of what is to come.

Watch the video. We’re in the middle of a tragedy. Soon enough, it will become a farce.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Governor of RI to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse

R.I. governor vetoes ‘domestic partners’ burial bill
Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal, (November 10, 2009)

When a person dies, his or her body needs to be claimed by the next of kin. If no kin can be found, then that dead body is handled by local authorities. The legal question of who (or whom) qualifies as next of kin is a real dilemma when it involves domestic partners who have been together for numerous years but lack any say over the final disposition of the body. Asserting a legal claim over the control of the corpse is a key issue for same-sex marriage proponents as well as domestic partnership advocates (which would cover heterosexual couples too).

Last week, in Rhode Island, the Governor vetoed a new Domestic Partners bill that would have granted same-sex and opposite-sex partners next of kin status for claiming dead bodies. This Providence Journal article discusses the veto and why Governor Carcieri did what he did.

I promise that in the future, people will look back and read these histories with disbelief.

You need only read this section to understand why:

At a hearing this year on one of the stalled bills to allow same-sex marriage, Mark S. Goldberg told a Senate committee about his months-long battle last fall to persuade state authorities to release to him the body of his partner of 17 years, Ron Hanby, so he could grant Hanby’s wish for cremation — only to have that request rejected because “we were not legally married or blood relatives.”

Goldberg said he tried to show the police and the state medical examiner’s office “our wills, living wills, power of attorney and marriage certificate” from Connecticut, but “no one was willing to see these documents.”

He said he was told the medical examiner’s office was required to conduct a two-week search for next of kin, but the medical examiner’s office waited a full week before placing the required ad in a newspaper. And then when no one responded, he said, they “waited another week” to notify another state agency of an unclaimed body.

Rhode Island State Flag

After four weeks, he said, a Department of Human Services employee “took pity on me and my plight … reviewed our documentation and was able to get all parties concerned to release Ron’s body to me,” but then the cremation society refused to cremate Ron’s body.

“On the same day, I contacted the Massachusetts Cremation Society and they were more than willing to work with me and cremate Ron’s body,” and so, “on November 6, 2008, I was able to finally pick up Ron’s remains and put this tragedy to rest.”

“I felt as if I was treated not as a second-class citizen, but as a noncitizen,” Goldberg told the Senate Judiciary Committee, an hour into the first hearing this year in the 13-year push by gay-rights advocates for the right to marry in Rhode Island, and the pushback from the Roman Catholic Church and other opponents.

Kathy Kushnir, executive directive of the advocacy group Marriage Equality of Rhode Island, called the governor’s veto “unconscionable” when “people are trying to piece their lives together, which is what Rhode Island is requiring them to do without legal recognition,” and then when “faced with a time that could not be more difficult or more painful, not even being able to take care of funeral arrangements for their loved ones.”

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

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.

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Death and the Economy: Unclaimed Bodies Fill the Detroit Morgue

Detroit: Too broke to bury their dead
Poppy Harlow, (October 1, 2009)

This CNN story on Detroit is heartbreaking. The economic situation in Detroit is horrible enough, but this particular dispatch says more about the financial straits of life and death than anything I have seen.

Over the summer, the New York Times ran an article on why home burials were a sign of the recession. I wrote about it here. The unclaimed dead body situation in Detroit is a much more profound statement about the economy than home burials.

Not only can families not afford to retrieve a deceased loved one because of the cost (even if they want to) the Wayne County Morgue does not have enough money for the final disposition of the bodies. So the bodies all remain in cold storage, waiting for something to happen.

Watch this video attached to CNN article:

Articles about the economy and death have been a re-occurring theme the last few months. This article got published in Green Bay, WI: Unclaimed cremated remains accumulate at Allouez cemetery.

Unclaimed Cremated Remains in Green Bay

Earlier in September, the New York Times ran an article on Wall Street investment firms buying and selling elderly and ill persons’ life insurance policies: The Back to Business: Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance.

And this AP article discusses a subject that I assumed would pop up eventually: Weak economy sparks rebirth of funeral sciences.

Then there are these stories: that the economy is actually good for some funeral homes because of increased mortality rates…

The video is the lead to this article about a Dallas, TX funeral home: At Golden Gate Funeral Home, Bodies Are John Beckwith Jr.’s Business, And Business Is Booming.

But when push comes to shove, and the economy gets really really bad, there is always Craigslist…

Date: 2009-07-20, 10:59AM
Guaranteed to keep your Goth hide translucent white during these hot and bright summer days, this hand-made coffin is just right for the petit Vampire or Vampette. If you are just under 5 feet tall (or can shape-shift to something smaller) with a 29-inch wing span, you will feel cozy and safe sleeping away the pesky daylight hours with this tasteful but unassuming box tucked away in your lair.

Goth Coffin

Your minions can keep your chamber mobile with these fine handles made of Transylvanian hemp and the tucked and buttoned red padded lining will have you snoring until sun down. The hand-painted, one-of-a-kind, whimsical take on a Coptic cross is certain not to offend any version of Goth, vamp or even warm-blood who might have the privilege of actually seeing your private chamber.

It’s hard to let this beautiful treasure go, but we’ve just run out of room. And with all of the sensible people around (see True Blood), we just don’t need to be so private anymore. It can be found and taken for free in the 3400 block of Barranca circle near Mt Bonnell. Better hurry though. It is Big Trash week in our neighborhood.