Throughout human history, the body has held special significance to numerous cultures, and ceremonies have been performed around and with the body for centuries. ‘Laying the body to rest’ is an integral part of the grieving process, and a great deal hangs upon it. Whether it’s a rain-drenched funeral with all the trimmings or a few people sadly watching a friend in a cardboard box being shuffled into a retort, dealing with the body, confronting the body, interacting with the body, is part of death. It’s tangible proof that the deceased is really gone, and not coming back.
Last year, I wrote about the creep in funeral costs occurring across the United States, spurred by a number of factors including increasing boldness on the part of the industry when it comes to gouging consumers. Despite numerous laws designed to prevent that very thing, funeral directors are ready and willing to extort what they can from grieving families; they know that few consumers know their rights, and fewer still are going to be comfortable looking them up and challenging a funeral director in the midst of handling a traumatic and possibly sudden event.
But even the most bare-bones of funerals is expensive, these days. ‘No-frills cremation,’ as it’s sometimes called, is basically the cheapest option you can get, involving little more than refrigeration of the body, cremation in a temporary container1, and preparation of the cremated remains for a family member to take home. This can run into the thousands, which is leading some families to make a rather heartbreaking decision: abandoning their dead2.
Unclaimed dead are also an ancient tradition. People who died alone and isolated were taken into the custody of the place where they died, and their handling depended on tradition. They might be given basic burials in a pauper’s graveyard, for example, or, today, cremated and stored with other unclaimed remains in the event a family member or friend tracked them down. Taking care of the dead was considered an ethical issue as well as a public health one; one couldn’t well leave dead bodies lying around because that would reflect horribly on the ethics and social responsibility of a society, and it would potentially attract insects and other unwanted visitors.
Indigent burials in the past in the United States primarily involved people separated from their family; homeless people, people without any family, and others in a position of total isolation. When they died alone and possibly far from home, local coroners and medical examiners would process them accordingly and maintain records. If someone came looking for the dead, cremated remains could be released for a fee, or arrangements could be made for exhumation and reburial, if desired.
As a public service, indigent burials aren’t even offered in all states, but those that do are facing rising expenses for handling remains. Now, they’re dealing not just with people who die without families, but those with families who can’t afford their burial, or refuse to pay for it. While the death of a family member can be heartbreaking, and families want to be able to mourn according to their own traditions and preferences, sometimes holding a funeral just isn’t possible, and the body has to be left to the coroner’s office because the family can’t afford it.
The number of fundraisers I’ve seen in the last year alone asking for assistance with funeral costs has been staggering. Particularly in regions like Chicago, plagued with an epidemic of violence against young Black men, the number of families struggling to meet funeral costs is rising, and that forces people to make tough choices. Sometimes it’s simply not possible to bury a family member with dignity and the honours the family wishes they could provide. Instead, they’re forced to leave the body unclaimed, not taking responsibility for it and allowing a municipality or county to foot the bill for storage and eventual cremation or burial.
In Illinois, at least, there’s been a proposal to use unclaimed bodies in medical research, and it’s created an outcry from people who are angered by the idea of bodies being used for research without the consent of their former occupants. If little is known about an unclaimed body, for example, we have no idea if the deceased had religious or personal objections to medical research, or would have participated in a directed donation program permitting some forms of research and not others. Illinois is simply trying to deal with a growing problem in the most efficient way possible, and argues that unclaimed bodies could be valuable contributions to research, but it still creates unease among those with concerns about respect for the dead.
We are living in a country where people cannot afford funerals. It’s worth noting, in light of my recent commentary on benefits, that many employers historically assisted with the costs of funerals, providing families with support to help them cover expenses ranging from buying the coffin to hiring an officiant. Life insurance can provide benefits that help pay for a funeral, but it takes a while for the insurance to pay out, and the family may be left in an awkward position, unable to borrow or make arrangements to cover the cost. And many young people dying suddenly don’t have life insurance, benefits, or other protections—or they were so mired in debt at the time of their deaths that the estate will be snarled, making it very hard to extract funeral costs in a timely fashion.
I can’t help but view rising numbers of unclaimed dead as an economic indicator, a coffin index, as it were, of where we are as a nation.