One day, we all pass away. Most of us prepare for that moment. We do not wish to burden our loved ones and friends with costs when they take care of our remains. We get life insurances, some look into buying burial plots, and others make an extensive inventory of items and bequests to be included in their last will and testament.
All this applies to those of us who leave behind loved ones and friends who will claim our remains. Our families and friends organize memorial services, burials or cremations, and make sure that our departure is made public so that there is an opportunity to say good-bye.
When this happens, we are the fortunate ones. We are left in the hands of people who honour our legacy, who organize a service that facilitates grief, and in doing so they ensure that we are not forgotten. We are the lucky ones.
Every city in every country in the world has funeral homes, morgues, hospital and other medical/private storage facilities for the bodies of the unclaimed. We don’t always know their identity or exact cause of death. But we do know one thing. Nobody came forward to claim them as their relative, their friend, or a member of their organization. Nobody came to start burial or cremation procedures. Nobody came to take the remains home.
In the USA, most of the unclaimed remains are cremated. It is simply the most cost-effective way and it facilitates storage. After the cremation, the state keeps a record about the persons’ identity (if known) or identifiers and where the ashes were taken for storage.
This may sound good but there is a lot that needs to be improved. That is why the Unclaimed are the Case of the Month for February 2021.
No Federal US Guidelines
When a body is not claimed by anyone, it becomes the responsibility of the US government. However, as we do not have federal procedures in place everything differs per state, per county, and even by city.
There is no federal law that sets the minimum of information that authorities must keep in their registers and for how long. There is no federal budgeting to help states facilitate the burials, cremations, or (to expand) storage facilities. The entire process comes down to local governments. With this, care varies per locality. If the state does not provide funding for the unclaimed, local authorities have to find money in their budget.
In some states, all unclaimed remains stay in communal burial plots at local cemeteries. In New York City, the unclaimed have their own cemetery on Hart Island. It is the largest tax-funded cemetery where over one million people have been buried in mass graves since 1875. If you wish to see it, Melinda Hunt created the Hart Island Project. It is a database from 1980 to the present.
We have no uniform system for the unclaimed apart from our veterans. The Department of Veteran Affairs is responsible for arranging burial or cremation services for veterans in military cemeteries.
Without a standard practice for information gathering, there can be differences between states in the time spent trying to find relatives and friends of the unclaimed. It is possible that in one state, authorities will even check for relatives in other countries but that in others states, this does not happen.
All authorities must act in good faith but how extensive the search must be at a minimum, or even how long authorities must keep the remains before they may be buried or cremated, varies. What is ‘reasonable’ and ‘in good faith’ is more determined by local budgets than by the deceased’s life, career, or family tree.
We already know that not all states have the same protocols in place in criminal cases. Another example is, aside from the unclaimed, our missing persons. Missing minors are almost always recorded however, missing adults are not. And, not all missing persons’ information is entered into NamUs. Not every police department shares their information.
Can you imagine how much information is scattered around the 50 states and territories about missing people, unidentified people, and unclaimed bodies? If we had one federal database with all states and territories under the obligation to enter their data we could cross-reference searches and solve a lot more cases.
But we should go one step further. We should ensure that from all the missing, unidentified and unclaimed people, we do our utmost to get their DNA, fingerprints, and photographs on file and in the federal databases. If we do this, we can be so much more effective. Granted, sometimes there is no further information about the missing or their relatives are unknown however, their files (dental, DNA, fingerprints, etc.) in NamUs should not be incomplete. What efforts were made should be noted as well as the last time the file was checked, the network for that case activated, and all involved contacted. On many pages, the information for the investigating agencies is incomplete lacking phone numbers or their general website.
Let’s see what the oldest unclaimed body is in the NamUs database. Very sadly, it is a child. And she was not yet six months old when she was found. We do know her name: Elizabeth Irene Zabala. Her remains were found on July 6, 1938 in San Bernardino County, California. Her NamUs file was created 81 years later on December 19, 2019.
I have not found any information about this baby yet, not under the name Zabala or Zavala. The San Bernardino Coroner’s Office did launch a website with a listing of all their unclaimed however, that website has been taken down. So, despite knowing the identity or name of the baby, we have nothing else.
The second oldest unclaimed body is from Donald R. Siliva. He was found dead on December 15, 1940 in Spokane, Spokane County, Washington. His file was created on May 31, 2016. Here too, we have nothing else and a web search came up empty.
The third oldest unclaimed body is from Marge Ann Mazari. Her dead body was found March 2, 1957 in Sparks, Washoe County, Nevada. Her file was created on April 2, 2020. Marge was a comfort care patient at Heartstone of Nevada. If you click on her link, you can see a picture of Marge probably taken in the morgue so view with caution. Her file too has no further details.
If you click here you can scroll down the list in the NamUs database. There are more than 10’466 files. Some are complete, some have the bare minimum. Remember that if you search in these databases you run the risk to view pictures taken in the morgue and they can be disturbing.
To me, the pictures are not disturbing. What leaves me unsettled is that we still cannot seem to do the basics for victims in general, the missing, the unidentified, the unclaimed, and the victims of unsolved homicides.
Data entry need not be done by officers who graduated from the police academy. It can be done by civilians who passed a background check. That police departments are overloaded with work, is obvious. So, why not work together with the civilian population? I feel sure that if all police departments requested help from civilians to handle data entry, many volunteers would step up to help. I know I would.
Imagine what we could contribute to the ongoing research in open cases, how fast we could get more cases posted on social media, and keep websites updated. Information could be cross-referenced fast so we know that the missing are not somewhere unclaimed.
It is 2021. We should not be imagining collaborations. We should be working together.