Grave decisions: Unclaimed dead a growing burden on counties
About five years ago, a man walked into the Montgomery County Coroner’s office with his dead grandparents' remains inside a USPS Priority Mail box with a return address in Miami.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” he told Montgomery County First Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki. “I’m leaving them here with you.”
Those ashes, of Lucille Bortner, 57, and Leroy Bortner, 65, who died two months apart in 1986, now sit on a metal shelf in a county storage room along with dozens of boxes containing the remains of others who have never been claimed by family members or friends.
The unclaimed dead are a growing burden for local governments. Caseloads have shot up dramatically over the past decade. Counties and municipalities are forced to spend more time, resources and tax dollars on handling unclaimed remains, often without the ability to be reimbursed, and with few state standards.
The reasons the dead go unclaimed are as different as the way they died. But most share similar traits, coroners and medical examiners said: In life, many were were poor, isolated or estranged from family.
Whatever the reason, 2 million cremated remains sit unclaimed across North America, the Cremation Society of North America estimates. Locally, there has been a marked uptick, according to coroner and medical examiner data:
- Of the 158 cremated remains stored at the Bucks County Morgue, nearly 80% percent came into county custody between 2013 and last year, according to county records.
- Montgomery County reported 75 unclaimed cases between 2013 and last year, compared to 19 between 2008 and 2012.
- One-quarter of the 119 unclaimed remains of Burlington County residents from the last 37 years died between 2013 and last year, according to burial records obtained through an Open Records request.
No national standards exist for identifying and processing unclaimed and indigent bodies, and state protocols can be vague, inconsistent and outdated. In Pennsylvania, the only law for handling unclaimed dead was written in 1883; it declares a body legally unclaimed after 36 hours, which allows it to be donated to science.
A 10-year-old New Jersey law allows outside groups to claim and bury the bodies of veterans, but says nothing of those who did not serve.
With little outside guidance, counties and municipalities are left to write their own rules, policies, procedures and timelines, which can vary widely. Some coroners have turned to amateur sleuths and genealogy websites to find next-of-kin. The Bucks County Coroner's office may construct a mausoleum for unclaimed remains.
“While society may not be able to prevent people from dying alone, medical examiners and coroners must find a way to decrease the unclaimed population, particularly if the family does not claim the decedent because of financial hardship," wrote Kenna Quinet, an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, in a 2016 academic study on unclaimed dead. "Understanding the nature and characteristics of the unclaimed dead and the factors involved in going unclaimed might strengthen the ability of public authorities to reduce the number.”
Among the biggest challenges for coroners and medical examiners is tracking down next-of-kin for unclaimed decedents. Those searches need to be documented in the event family later disputes them, officials said.
“We spend so much time trying to hunt down families,” said Ken Bacha, a funeral home owner and coroner in Westmoreland County, in western Pennsylvania, who speaks at professional conferences about the impact of unclaimed dead on his professions.
Staff scour for next-of-kin through phone calls, home visits and online searches using public records. Often they seek assistance from law enforcement, who have direct access to deeper databases including criminal history, missing person files and transportation records.
Some New Jersey counties require medical examiners to place legal ads as part of a family search, according to Nicole Kirgan, a New Jersey Department of Health spokeswoman.
Montgomery County’s Balacki has sought the help of Unclaimed Persons, online amateur detectives and volunteer genealogists who search for next of kin for coroners and medical examiner offices. On its website, the group says it has solved more than 400 cases since 2008.
Bucks and Montgomery counties can spend up to two months searching for family. Philadelphia keeps unclaimed bodies for up to three months. Burlington County’s Medical Examiner's Office has no timetable.
But small and rural counties may not have refrigeration space to store bodies for months, Bacha said.
Typically, coroners and medical examiners are successful in finding next-of-kin, but family is under no legal obligation to claim the dead. It is a problem that coroners and medical examiners said they often encounter; Balacki estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of the unclaimed dead in Montgomery County have surviving family members.
When next-of-kin refuses to claim the deceased, the person is asked to authorize a county cremation or burial and waive future claims to the body and remains. If there is no response, a follow-up letter is sent with a deadline, after which counties move forward with disposal.
Bucks County Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell recalled a case where his office found a son and daughter who told them they wanted nothing to do with their father, but were quick to point out a misspelling on the death certificate that held up estate disbursement.
Other times, family initially agree to make arrangements, but don’t follow through or return calls, said Campbell, also president of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association.
Nursing home residents account for a large portion of unclaimed dead, according to Bacha. He attributes the number to poor record-keeping practices and lax admission policies.
When a patient enters rehab or a nursing home, their families are asked to provide the name of the funeral home handling final arrangements and emergency contact numbers. But staff typically don't update or verify the information as accurate, which can lead to problems years later when the person dies, he said.
One potential solution Bacha suggested is legislation mandating nursing homes establish end-of-life plan protocols or create funds to cover cremation for unclaimed residents.
Such protocols might have let John Fogarty avoid being identified as unclaimed.
Fogarty and his wife, who had no children, lived in a Doylestown nursing home. Before his wife died in 1999, Fogarty prepaid for his final arrangements. He died nine years later at age 88.
When no family came forward, the county had him cremated and his ashes placed in storage, where he remained for three years.
It turned out the nursing home wrongly assumed that the hospital where Fogarty died contacted the funeral home.
Two women who knew Fogarty discovered the error after they saw his name listed among unclaimed dead in Bucks County, found his wife's obituary and called the funeral home that handled her arrangements; it also handled his arrangements and had not been notified of his death.
The funeral director immediately retrieved Fogarty's remains from the county. He was buried with his wife.
Eileen Benenati buried her husband, Joseph, at a state-owned New Jersey veterans' cemetery in January 2016. Nine months later, she died at age 69.
The Burlington County Medical Examiner's Office waited three months; when no family came forward she was buried in an unmarked grave at a county-owned cemetery off County Route 530 across from the Pemberton Township Municipal Complex. It's the final resting place for Burlington County's poor, unidentified and unclaimed dead since 1942, officials said.
Then last year, Benenati's estranged sister, who lives out of state, found out that her Evesham home was for sale. A neighbor told her to contact the medical examiner.
At the sister’s request, Benenati's body was disinterred and transported to a local funeral home where private burial arrangements were made, county spokeswoman Christine Gonnelli said.
The county did not charge the woman to bury or retrieve her sister's body. Instead, local taxpayers covered the $300 burial stipend and $300 to retrieve her remains, Gonnelli said.
Tax dollars also are used for other routine final expenses such as to mark, open and close unclaimed graves, to pay for the corrugated burial containers, and obtain the death certificate, Gonnelli said. The county spent an estimated total of $10,200 between 2013 and last year to bury residents, according to financial documents.
Bucks County spent an estimated $10,000 to cremate 29 unclaimed dead in 2017, Campbell said. Montgomery County budgets $10,000 to $15,000 a year for unclaimed dead expenses, though the amount doesn’t reflect transportation and employee costs, Balacki said.
One way counties try to recoup some of their costs is through the deceased's estate, but often it's a fruitless effort since unclaimed dead often were poor, coroners said.
In Bucks County, if the coroner’s office cannot find legal next-of-kin before a body is cremated, but later family comes forward, the family is asked to pay a discounted rate for cremation. Campbell declined to reveal the cost, but said it is less than the $1,000 charged to a family who legally give up claims to a body.
Montgomery County charges $2,000 if family members change their minds and want to reclaim remains immediately after cremation. That cost drops to $750 after the first year, said Balacki.
Counties also look for other cost-control measures, including soliciting assistance from churches and other organizations such as Humanities Gifts Registry, which uses donated bodies for scientific research, then cremates and disposes of ashes.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey offer final expense assistance for deceased receiving medical assistance or Social Security income, though it only covers part of the costs. In New Jersey, the state reimburses the county board of social services for what it pays funeral homes that handle indigent burials.
Across the river, though, only approved funeral homes in Pennsylvania are eligible for up to $750 reimbursement and only if the total cost is under $1,500.
Help for veterans
Among the more than 300 names gathered by this news organization of unclaimed remains in Bucks, Burlington and Montgomery counties, at least four are military veterans.
Honorably discharged U.S. military members and spouses are eligible for free burial in a veterans' cemetery.
To qualify for military burial, service has to be proved through a document known as a DD214, which are given to members at discharge. All DD214s are kept at the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri; local congressional offices and military organizations can get them for burial purposes.
But somebody has to make the request.
Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey mandates funeral homes or county agencies notify veteran authorities about unclaimed veterans.
Montgomery County forwards information about deceased military veterans to county and federal military veteran organizations, and has identified at least five veterans over the last 11 years, Balacki said.
In the 30 years that he has been Bucks County Military Affairs Department Director, Dan Fraley said that he doesn’t recall ever getting a call from a county coroner about a possible veteran. Burlington County did not make its medical examiner available to answer questions.
Pennsylvania has no law giving veteran groups the ability to claim deceased veterans. New Jersey does.
The 2009 law gave veterans’ organizations the ability to claim unclaimed veterans’ cremated remains after one year, if no family comes forward. The remains must be disposed of in a dignified manner.
Since then, one New Jersey nonprofit, Mission of Honor, has retrieved the cremated remains of more than 600 veterans at funeral homes in central and northern New Jersey. At least half those remains were reunited with family, according to the organization.
Another volunteer organization, the Missing in America Project, handles southern New Jersey veterans. Earlier this year the group laid to rest the cremains of seven veterans and one spouse at a state-owned Burlington County veterans' cemetery.
In other counties it's more difficult for friends and others to retrieve unclaimed remains.
For the last 10 years, Bucks County policy has been that cremated remains are only released to family, unless someone is an estate administrator.
The rule was crafted after two women sued the county and its coroner's office in federal court, alleging it failed to notify them about their estranged father's death before cremating his body and giving his ashes to his girlfriend. The suit was later dismissed, but the policy remains in place.
Coroners typically are reluctant to dispose of cremains, concerned that family may show up one day.
Under New Jersey law, unclaimed cremated remains can be disposed of one year after cremation. Funeral homes and medical examiners must show a “diligent” effort was made to locate family or friends such as a certified letter with return receipt requested mailed to whomever authorized the cremation.
Pennsylvania law allows for disposal of unclaimed remains after less than two days, but Montgomery County keeps cremains 10 years, then has them buried in a mass grave, Balacki said. Burlington County buries its unclaimed dead in individuals plots.
Bucks County has two decades of unclaimed cremains in storage — but that may soon change.
Inspired by plans in Lycoming County in Central Pennsylvania to open an 800-square-foot mausoleum in a municipal-owned cemetery, Bucks' Campbell two years ago approached Plumstead Township officials about building a similar vault to hold the dozens of unclaimed remains now kept in an evidence room at the county morgue in Warminster.
In the 1960s, the township took over control of a cemetery after the church that owned it could no longer maintain it, according to Township Manager Carolyn McCreary. Currently no burials are done at the property.
The discussions with the county about the proposed mausoleum are ongoing, McCreary said. The county recently prepared a rendering of the proposed 1,900-square-foot structure for supervisor feedback, McCreary said.
There is no timetable for considering the plan and the township cannot permit construction until the issue of its registration as a cemetery company is addressed and escrow posted, McCreary said.
But supervisors are open to the idea, she added.
“The board believes everyone deserves a resting place," she said.