How Long Should We Retain Unclaimed Remains?

We have a strange relationship to the body — in life, it is the vessel that holds our humanity, without which we are nothing. In death, it becomes an empty husk, but still one laden with symbolism. Whatever spark that animated it — whatever you believe is the divide between life and death, the thing that inhabits a body to make it a human body and the thing that disappears at death — is gone. What’s left is a body, a collection of declining systems rapidly breaking into decay, harried along by the microorganisms that make the world turn ’round, focusing on continually breaking down, rebuilding, turning anew.

But it isn’t quite a meaningless sack, either. Because the body is something larger than that. We want to sit with it in its final hours — in fact, the traditions of some faith require appointing someone to sit by the body from death until interment. We want to hold a ceremony that is as much a celebration of the life of the person we have lost as it is a way for mourners to gather as it is also a way to respectfully handle the body. Throwing away the remains of a human being seems harsh, unreasonable, and thus we go to great lengths not just to inter the body as we thought the deceased might have wanted, but to reclaim human remains in the wake of tragic incidents, to ensure that all remains eventually find their way ‘home’ to the people who cared about the people they used to be.

What do we do, then, with unclaimed remains? Some people die and are never identified — others are, but next of kin cannot be located, or families cannot afford the costs of a funeral, and thus can’t afford to claim the decedent. Funeral homes and county agencies may cremate unclaimed remains and store them, or bury them in an area of the cemetery dedicated to that purpose, depending on regional policies. In all cases, it’s a small, grim event with minimal ceremony. Even as people try to respect the dead, they are harried and limited by how much they can offer with the limited funds and space available.

How long should we wait with unclaimed remains before giving up on them? In regions where bodies are stored and then buried, there are obvious pressures of having limited room in storage and concerns about decay — in these areas, unclaimed remains have to be buried or cremated in a timely fashion. In other regions, where cremation of unclaimed remains is the default after a set period of time, cremated remains can stack up in closets, in safes, in other storage facilities, their containers slowly breaking down. Records begin to decay, labels peel off — who knows who is really who, after a certain point?

Ultimately, what’s more respectful? Sitting on a shelf in a storage closet for decades, waiting for someone who may never come, or being interred in a cemetery or columbarium? It’s a difficult balance, because of course no one wants to give up on the dead too soon, to leave family members feeling deprived of the opportunity for a funeral and a chance to honour their dead. By the same token, though, there comes a time when it’s necessary to recognise that no one is coming, and moving on is the best course of action — with careful records so that in the event someone¬†does¬†come, that person can be led to the grave and offered the option of visiting their loved one.

What kind of timespan, though? Five years? A decade? Some human remains sit unclaimed for numerous decades, despite the best efforts of officials to locate their next of kin. As they sit, opportunities to create comprehensive, detailed records also dwindle. Around the time of death is the best time to take images (if possible, to borrow images taken from life), to note down details about the decedent’s birth date, date of death, and any other helpful identifying information that’s known. To create a file that offers as much information as possible so that people conducting research with limited data have a chance at finding their loved ones — and have a chance at better understanding who they were in life through the documentation offered.

It may also be time to consider campaigns like the Missing in America Project, which works on identifying the unclaimed remains of veterans and providing them with honourable burials. The programme takes advantage of collective energies dedicated to the armed services to track down decedents across the US and bring their bodies, or ashes, home to their families and military cemeteries. They have the advantage of government burial benefits, but there’s no reason other associations and groups couldn’t form similar volunteer organisations to celebrate and honour their members by seeking their unclaimed remains and giving them a respectful burial.

Similar initiatives can be seen, for example, with programmes to rebury the dead at historic psychiatric institutions, where patients were once carelessly dumped after death wherever it was convenient. Participants usually arrange to have people disinterred and then reburied respectfully with as much information possible (many are unidentifiable). Likewise, historic prisons tend to be burial grounds as well, and the dead were often handled quite carelessly when compared to today. Clearly, the initiative exists to find and handle unclaimed remains, it just doesn’t extend to all groups.

Members of the homeless community are perhaps the most obvious group who don’t have access to burial services and are often left unclaimed. While high-profile cases of homeless deaths are sometimes accompanied by an explosion of guilty grief on the part of the community, which tries to do the right thing in death since it failed in life, more often, when homeless people die, their ashes end up wedged into crematory closets. What about a national programme to reclaim such remains and bury them with honour and decency? To challenge the idea that human remains are so much garbage when people die alone, with no known friends and family?

Image: Graveyard, ASJ8, Flickr.