Have economic times gotten so bad that some of the dead are going unburied? Several large counties across the country are experiencing unprecedented increases in the number of unclaimed deceased - not only because the dead people could not be identified, were indigent or were estranged from their family, but also apparently because more people simply cannot afford to bury or cremate their loved ones. The phenomenon has increased costs for local governments, which have to dispose of the bodies.
"People were picking the bodies up last year," says Albert Samuels, chief investigator at the medical examiner's office in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. "Across the board, I'm finding the numbers are on the rise of either families who are not coming forward to claim bodies or they're signing releases saying they can't afford to bury someone, which taxes the county resources because then the county is responsible for burying these people."
The Los Angeles County coroner's office has seen a surge in the number of bodies that are not claimed by families for cremation or burial because of economic hardship, according to the Los Angeles Times. At the county coroner's office - which handles homicides and other suspicious deaths - 36% more cremations were done at taxpayers' expense in the past fiscal year compared with the previous year, from 525 to 712, the paper reported.
The traditional tourist mecca of Las Vegas is facing similar challenges. The coroner's office in Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, saw a 22% increase in burials and cremations of unclaimed bodies this year, jumping from 741 to 904. When burial costs exceeded $1 million in the 2003-'04 fiscal year, the agency turned to cremating the unclaimed unless it could be determined that burial was required because of religious or other beliefs. Each cremation costs $425 to $475.
Currently in Detroit, says Samuels, "I have approximately 65 to 70 bodies that are ready to be buried. Of those 65 or 70, I can tell you, are 35 or 40 where families have signed off on the bodies and they don't have the funds to bury them." It costs the state - or the county, if the state declines to help - $750 to bury an unclaimed decedent in a potter's grave in Western Wayne County.
That is still only a small fraction of what a traditional burial costs a family. (According to the most recent statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association, a regular adult funeral with burial, not including cemetery, monument or marker costs, averages $7,323.) Even so, the costs can quickly add up for a place like Wayne County. "Per capita, we're probably the fifth busiest medical examiner's office in the country," says Samuels. "We handle 13,000 death calls a year and almost 3,600 bodies come through this system a year. So you're talking about 10 bodies a day average."
Despite the considerable costs to his agency, Samuels is sympathetic to the plight people find themselves in. "They don't do this gleefully. These people are really heartbroken about the fact that they can't [bury their loved ones]. This is not just a distant relative - you have kids who can't bury their parents a lot of times, or siblings who can't bury each other."
Samuels, a retired police officer who has been with the medical examiner's office for 13 years, says he's never seen the situation this bad. "Some people just never had the money, but now we're getting people who at one time may have had the money to do this and they just can't. We have people losing their homes. People are finally feeling the economic strain completely. When people don't have jobs, you have people who can't eat, so burying someone is not high up on their list of what they have to do."
The dirge has the same tune in Vegas. P. Michael Murphy, Clark County coroner and president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, says he's seen a definite uptick in the number of indigent burials due to financial hardship in the past several months. "Our investigators are seeing an increase in families who as part of the initial shock they're going through are verbalizing to us, 'What am I going to do? I can't pay the rent. My car is being repossessed' or whatever. Our finances are at the very limit," says Murphy. "This problem used to be unique to just indigents who either had no family or were living on the street or homeless. We are now seeing folks expressing this concern who are recently unemployed or their house is in foreclosure, so it's not just what you would typically think of being an indigent burial."
"Let's not forget that this is not just a financial issue," says Murphy. "The sense that I get from our investigators is that when people are emotionally strapped already [because of their finances], this is almost like the icing on the cake. It sort of breaks their back. It's hard enough when you're dealing with the death of a loved one, then add in all the additional social pressures that go along with it, and it can make things seem insurmountable."
At a time of increased demand, medical examiner's and coroner's offices across the country, like many other county agencies, are experiencing severe budget cuts that may only worsen the problem, says Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, past president and chairman of the board of the National Association of Medical Examiners. Says Jentzen: "Every medical examiner I've talked to has had major cuts in financial support from the county that are going to start impacting service. I'm talking about cuts in the 20%-to-25% range across the nation." Jentzen worked as the chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County for 20 years before becoming a professor and director of forensic and autopsy services at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor last year.
Even in locations like Milwaukee County, where the number of unclaimed decedents is holding steady, the numbers will likely swell if $300,000 is cut in burial assistance, as proposed for 2010 by the county's department of health and human services. The program currently offers up to $1,500 in burial assistance to low-income families. "I would guess it would at least triple the number of unclaimed bodies if burial assistance is cut, because families are just not going to have the money to take care of them," says Karen Domagalski, operations manager for the Milwaukee County medical examiner's office, which handles about 60 unclaimed bodies a year.
As a result of current or potential budget cuts, Jentzen says, some county jurisdictions may need to cut back or stop providing burial services for the unclaimed. "If county's can't do it because they're strapped," says Jentzen, "then I don't know where they're going to go."
Damn, I'd just have my family throw my dead body to the mountain bears for that cost.