The Unclaimed Dead: A Closer Look at Cremation and Interment Practices

Sophia Moonstone

Updated Wednesday, July 10, 2024 at 10:11 PM CDT

The Unclaimed Dead: A Closer Look at Cremation and Interment Practices

Cremation: A Cost-Effective Solution

In many parts of the United States, the state takes responsibility for the cremation and interment of unclaimed bodies, using public tax dollars to cover the expenses. Cremation is often chosen as it is considered a cheaper and quicker alternative to traditional burial methods. This method allows for efficient handling of remains, especially in large urban areas where space and resources are limited.

Unclaimed bodies are typically cremated, and their ashes can be stored in various locations, such as cemeteries or mortuaries, until a decision is made about their final resting place. This approach not only helps manage costs but also ensures that the deceased are treated with dignity, even in death.

The Process in Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County processes a significant number of unclaimed dead each year. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the county handled 1,937 unclaimed bodies. These bodies are cremated, and the cremated remains are held for three years to give family members a chance to come forward and claim them. If no one comes forward, the remains are then buried together in a county-owned cemetery.

The Ceremony of the Unclaimed Dead, an interfaith funeral service, has been held annually since 1896 in Los Angeles County. This ceremony takes place at a burial ground adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. While the burial ground is generally not open to the public, family members can place memorial plaques if they come forward after the remains have been buried. This annual ceremony ensures that the unclaimed dead are honored and remembered.

Intentional Lack of Burial Instructions

In some cases, individuals may intentionally omit burial instructions in their wills to maximize asset distribution to charities. This was the case in Pittsburgh, where Allegheny County paid for the cremation of an elderly couple who had no burial instructions and had donated their assets to charity. The Diocese of Pittsburgh was asked to inter the remains in their parish cemetery. The pastor and staff believed that the couple preferred their assets to be used to help others rather than being spent on their burial.

Community Involvement and Respect

Some jurisdictions hold small ceremonies for unclaimed bodies and advertise in local media, inviting people to attend. This practice ensures that even those without next of kin are given a respectful send-off. There are also individuals who make a point of attending funerals for those with no next of kin, ensuring that the deceased are not forgotten and are honored in their final moments.

A notable example of community involvement is the story of "Bill," the unclaimed cremated remains at a major New England airport. "Bill" became a beloved fixture among the staff, who decorated and celebrated the remains with a "Deathday" party, complete with cupcakes and candles. This humorous yet touching tradition highlights the human need to connect and honor the dead, even when they are strangers.

Documentary Insight

For those interested in a deeper understanding of the process surrounding unclaimed bodies, the documentary "A Certain Kind of Death" on YouTube offers a detailed look at the procedures in Los Angeles. While the documentary is described as grisly and unpleasant, it provides valuable insight into the realities faced by those handling unclaimed bodies.

Final Thoughts

The handling of unclaimed bodies is a complex and sensitive issue that involves various practices and procedures to ensure that the deceased are treated with respect and dignity. From state-funded cremations to community ceremonies, these practices highlight the importance of honoring the dead, even when they have no next of kin. As society continues to evolve, it is crucial to maintain and improve these practices to ensure that every individual is given a respectful and dignified farewell.

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