Coroners grapple with rising numbers of unclaimed bodies

Search engines, social media, public documents used to locate family members of the deceased

By Susan Baldrige
LNP newspaper

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — There were no flowers, no words of comfort, no eulogies in honor of the deceased. There were no tears shed, no somber prayers and not a single family member standing graveside.

There was just Pauline and Noah Zimmerman, a funeral director and a couple of men who had backed a truck carrying 600 bags of cremated human remains right up to the edge of a large, freshly dug hole in the ground just outside Lancaster city.

On this July day, at Mellinger Mennonite Cemetery along Lincoln Highway, the men were performing a ritual that has become increasingly common in Lancaster County and the surrounding area: a mass interment for the “unclaimed.”

“There’s not usually a service. They just get placed and my husband, Noah, then fills in the grave,” says Pauline Mellinger, a caretaker at the cemetery.

Indeed, on this day, the workers placed the 600 plastic bags containing the remains in the burial site, got in their truck and pulled away with the funeral director. “They must have wanted to get them off their shelves,” says Zimmerman.

She and her husband are used to the indifference of those performing the task. Some time ago, a funeral director preparing to inter the cremated remains of 1,000 people made this request of Noah: “Dig the grave deep.”

He knew there would be more.

And this summer there were.


Explaining the unclaimed

Until their burial, the unclaimed rest in black cardboard boxes inside a metal cabinet at the Lancaster County morgue in East Hempfield Township. Their cremated remains are organized neatly on shelves according to year of death.

The boxes serve as a reminder of the disconnectedness, and sometimes the coldness, of society. These are the people who have died alone and have no surviving family. These are the people whose relatives can’t afford to claim them, or in some cases simply choose not to. These, in some cases, are victims of the opioid epidemic.

“Sometimes we can’t find the next of kin, and some people honestly can’t afford to pay for the burial costs of their loved ones,” says Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni. “But more sadly, some don’t care enough about their family members to provide a proper burial.

“One man we contacted said, ‘I never liked my dad. For all I care, you can throw him out the window,’ “ recalls Diamantoni. “That’s sad to me that someone would have no emotional attachment, or at least no sense of responsibility. And then it’s the taxpayers who have to foot the bill.”

The president of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, Charles E. Kiessling Jr., says the number of unclaimed bodies being cremated is growing faster than coroners can figure out what to do with them.
“Almost every week I hear that someone is running out of room to store all their unclaimed bodies. It’s a problem everywhere,” says Kiessling, who serves as Lycoming County’s coroner.

Kiessling says he spent a lot of time recently trying to find a relative of an elderly woman who had died in his county. But when he found someone, that person wasn’t interested in claiming her aunt.

The relative told Kiessling: “Put a bone in her and let the dogs drag her away for all I care.” Reflected the coroner: “I think the relative maybe was unhappy the elderly woman left all her possessions to her church.”

Across the state, hundreds of boxes of ashes remain unclaimed. They are sitting in morgue storage lockers and in funeral homes awaiting interment, en masse, in a pauper’s grave, without fanfare.

York County Coroner Pam Gay says the number of unclaimed bodies hit 39 last year, double the number in 2014. And that’s a big problem.

“We’re not like Lancaster,” says Gay. “We don’t have a morgue. We share eight slots, eight drawers with York Hospital in a city of 440,000 people. We’re moving people in and out all the time,” she says.

Because of the lack of space for unclaimed bodies in York County, the coroner’s office typically cremates them in a week or less — sometimes before even a relative can be located.

“We can’t wait around. There can be insect activity, which is a biohazard,” she says. “Everyone who handles the body has to have personal protective gear.”

The county works with several funeral homes that discount the rate of cremation for them. Even with the discount, the cost to the coroners’ offices can be from several hundred dollars to $1,000 for each body.
The costs to York County of dealing with unclaimed bodies have risen from $4,300 five years ago to $12,000 in 2016, Gay says.

Dauphin County already has 16 unclaimed bodies this year, one more than in all of 2016. If the office determines the deceased is a veteran, it pays to transport that body to Indiantown Gap for a military funeral, says Jill Payne, from the Dauphin County Coroner’s Office.


Running out of room

Coroners in Lancaster, Dauphin, Chester, Berks, Lebanon and York counties say the number of unclaimed bodies their offices have handled in the past five years has increased from 20 to 100 percent.

Diamantoni says his office has already cremated 20 bodies that were unclaimed by relatives this year — nearly as many as in all of 2015, when the office had 22 for the entire year, the most to date.

Diamantoni says he might ask the county for more money in next year’s budget to cover the rising costs of handling and cremating unclaimed bodies. The taxpayer-funded office has spent $6,500 so far this year.
The coroner says that when the number of boxes in the cabinet of unclaimed remains reaches 45, he will need to find a burial site. It might be Mellinger Mennonite Cemetery. It might be a plot donated by another cemetery.

In Lebanon County, Coroner Jeffrey Yokum reports his office has gone from a low of a single unclaimed body in 2010 to seven last year.

Chester County’s chief deputy coroner, David Daugherty, says his county has experienced about a 20 percent increase in the number of unclaimed bodies over the past five or six years.

The county reached an all-time high of 17 unclaimed bodies last year, Daugherty says.

“The way it’s going, we will potentially go over our line item for our budget, which is $6,600. It really depends on the rest of the year,” Daugherty says.

The Berks County Coroner’s Office was left with 20 unclaimed bodies last year, the most ever. This year they’ve already had 12, at a cost of $750 each for disposal, according to Jonn M. Hollenbach, the assistant chief deputy coroner.

“It’s not just the cost of cremation the coroners are dealing with,” says Kiessling. “It’s the man hours trying to track down relatives through data bases and social media.”


Frustration among coroners

Lancaster County’s chief deputy coroner, Eric Bieber, says his office uses search engines, social media and public documents to try and locate family members of the deceased.
Sometimes it succeeds. Many times it does not.

And even if coroners do manage to find a relative, that does not guarantee they will claim their relative.

And that’s frustrating to some coroners, including Gay, of York.

“Just because we can’t find a relative to claim them, or a relative won’t claim them, they still deserve to be treated with respect at their passing.”

“I can see when a young couple who have three or four kids can’t take on the burial costs for estranged parents or grandparents, but sometimes we have people who are well off who just don’t want to be bothered,” she says.

“Sometimes we see someone who refused to claim their relative post a GoFundMe page to pay for funeral expenses,” says Gay, “but they never come in to claim that person.”

York County may file a lien if the person left an estate, and they can hold back the death certificate if relatives refuse to pick up a body of a family member, but that’s as much leverage as they have, Gay says.
With each passing year in Lancaster County, the morgue shelves become more loaded with urns. The shelf for 2017 is already full.

Diamantoni says the coroner’s office eventually will hold a ceremony to honor the dead who have been unclaimed by their relatives.

He says they will try to make more of an effort than has been done in the past.

Maybe this time there will be a minister and the public may be invited.

“Just because we can’t find a relative to claim them, or a relative won’t claim them,” he says, “they still deserve to be treated with respect at their passing.”