Monday, November 14, 2016

Unclaimed Dead: Description, Ritual, Disposal (Research, Video 1:56)

Sometimes people die, and no one steps up to claim their remains. Perhaps the next of kin could not be found. Maybe they were found, but could not or would not take the responsibility for various reasons. Some bodies are donated to science, but many are not. Who are these bodies that may never receive an earthly send-off? In Macon, Indiana the statistics on unclaimed bodies vs. claimed bodies reported this:

1) The unclaimed dead were disproportionately male, slightly more likely to be Black, younger at death, and dead from natural causes.
2) They had unknown marital status and were equally likely as not to have next of kin.
3) Instead of dying in a hospital, they died from external causes, and they were subject to autopsy.
4) Nearly half of the unclaimed bodies had next of kin who did not claim them; the other half had no identifiable next of kin.
5) Most unclaimed bodies were identified by means of fingerprints or DNA.

What are medical examiners around the country doing as unclaimed bodies accumulate at morgues? Are bodies ever honored with death rituals? What about disposal of these remains? This is how it’s done in Detroit, Michigan.

A few years ago in Detroit, Michigan, I attended a death ritual service including a small community of people who meet monthly at a local funeral home where the morgue sends names and birthdates of unclaimed bodies. Anyone can attend. The day I participated, we paid our respects to 28 people. Together we engaged in a moving ritual honoring the unclaimed deceased. 

The service included heartfelt words, music, printed programs, American flags, candles, and beautiful white roses representing each deceased honoree. As the name and birthdate of each deceased person was read, our enthusiastic response of “May he/she rest in peace” felt exhilarating and empowering, knowing our presence served as testimony to their lives. We sang in celebration of this momentous occasion. Each honoree had been claimed.

In this video, Albert Samuels of the Detroit Wayne County medical examiner’s office, Betsy Deak of Perry Funeral Home, and Anthony Tocco of Knollwood Memorial Park explain how their organizations respond to honoring unclaimed bodies.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers.
Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog


  1. This is beautiful. I know a woman who makes baby clothing with her daughters and then goes to claim the unclaimed babies' bodies from the morgue, dresses them and then pays for their burial service. It never occurs to most of us what a privilege it is to have people in our lives who love us and want to honor us. These people in Detroit are angels.

    1. Kim, your story about the woman and her daughter making baby clothes for unclaimed babies is also beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us. There are so many ways to show love for others. Happy endings!