In Philadelphia, finding dignity for bodies left unclaimed

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A single stone marks the grave of 1,500 Philadelphians whose cremated remains were never claimed from the Medical Examiners Office. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A single stone marks the grave of 1,500 Philadelphians whose cremated remains were never claimed from the Medical Examiners Office. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At Laurel Hill Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia, it’s easy to overlook a couple of small patches of grass in the center of the sprawling 78-acre site dominated by ornate obelisks and Civil War-era mausoleums.

This piece is part of our “Bodies” show. Take a look at the rest of our stories here.

At Laurel Hill Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia, it’s easy to overlook a couple of small patches of grass in the center of the sprawling 78-acre site dominated by ornate obelisks and Civil War-era mausoleums.

But a headstone’s almost-cryptic inscription there draws you in, provoking both confusion and disbelief.

It reads: 1,500 citizens cosigned to earth, City of Philadelphia, 2010.

“All that really means is we buried 1,500 people in 2010, and we’re all Philadelphia residents, and basically, all it is is a permanent marker,” said the cemetery’s veteran superintendent Bill Doran. “This just personalizes it.”

It’s impossible to truly personalize the cremated remains of 1,500 people city officials knew almost nothing about. But the headstone is, at least, an acknowledgement. Right next to it, another 515 unclaimed remains have been buried recently and will be receiving a similar headstone this month.

With his bright blue eyes and unruly mop of hair, Doran, born in Ireland, conveys a kind of mellowness that might just come with looking after the cemetery’s scenic slopes for three decades.

He keeps a detailed list of all the 2,000-plus unclaimed remains buried at Laurel Hill. Often, Doran says, the mourners at that site have no connection to any of them, but are just bearing witness to those who’ve passed with barely any notice.

Laurel Hill Cemetery Superintendent Bill Doran arranges stuffed animals left at the grave where unclaimed remains were recently buried. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Every year, the Medical Examiner’s Office in Philadelphia says it cremates about 250 unclaimed bodies, people whose family, friends, or any other next of kin, remain elusive, or unwilling to step forward, offloading burial responsibilities to the city. A third of all the unclaimed bodies the city receives are stillborn fetuses.

The city must pay a few hundred dollars per cremation. Each year, Philadelphia spends tens of thousands of dollars cremating unclaimed remains.

The last couple of mass burials of unclaimed bodies happened at Laurel Hill because the site won a city contract, and Doran is passionate about having even more buried at the National Historic Landmark site. A significant portion of those unclaimed remains belong to families who cannot muster the means to deal with a passed loved one, Doran said, so he feels almost responsible to properly dignify their passing.

Before using Laurel Hill, the city interred unclaimed remains at a small potter’s field in Northwest Philadelphia, which eventually ran out of room.

David Quain, the city’s forensic-services manager, said some families come to recover remains before burial years after someone passes, but many times, the family never shows up to the Medical Examiner’s Office .

“Families frequently say they are financially unable to pay for the cost of cremation, so I believe that is the primary reason bodies remain unclaimed,” Quain said.

Doran said he has also encountered this.

“Minimum funeral today, is 5-,6-, 7-thousand-dollars, and there’s quite a lot of people in Philadelphia that can’t afford that kind of money,” Doran said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services does offer burial stipends for individuals on cash assistance at the time of death, but only when the total cost of burial is less than $1,500. If those requirements are met, the state will pay for about half of the burial cost, leaving many still feeling hamstrung.

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak has dedicated her life to trying to figure out why so many people die alone, with relatives elusive and friends unable to track down.

“Sometimes somebody just winds up unclaimed because they’re the wanderer in the family, and it takes two years before someone wakes up and says, ‘hey, we haven’t heard from Joe, what’s up? What happened to him?'”

She said friends drift apart; families feud, which can be isolating; someone moves to another city and becomes homeless; a person dies of old age and isn’t survived by anyone; or an immigrant came to the country alone.

“And this is maybe the saddest thing of all: there are people who really do care but are just too darn poor to do anything about it,” she said.

In addition to the cost of cremation (a private cremation can start around $1,100), a plot costs money, the actual burial is costly and an undertaker and other staff need to get paid. As Doran noted, the expenses mount fast.

Here’s how a corpse moves through the system.

When a dead body is found in Pennsylvania, either a county’s coroner, or a medical examiner, gets involved immediately. Philadelphia uses medical examiners, who are appointed, rather than elected, like coroners.

If the next of kin doesn’t step forward or can’t be found after 36 hours, a body is deemed legally unclaimed in Pennsylvania, under a law written in 1883. It’s then stored in a refrigerated morgue for three months, allowing families that long to come pick up their lost loved one. After the three-month period, the city will cremate, and keep those cremains for 10 years. When they really start to accumulate, Doran from Laurel Hill Cemetery will get a call. Soon after, he’ll drive his pickup to the Medical Examiner’s Office to transport them back to the cemetery by the hundreds.

“Imagine how many cremated remains are down there if they keep them for 10 years,” Doran said.

The answer is: a lot. The city wouldn’t say exactly how many cremains it is currently holding, but officials usually plan mass burials for about 500 of them at a time.

What shocks Doran the most is that, unlike some counties that charge next of kin for cremains, Philadelphia offers them at no cost. Still, so many stay untouched for years.

Smolenyak points out that, most of the time, unclaimed body cremains are buried in a closed potters field — like Hart Island in the Bronx. Mass graves with no headstones. Sometimes, no public access. And, occasionally, just donated to nature.

“Each county makes their own decisions on how the deceased are disposed of,” Smolenyak said. “And in some places, their ashes are just scattered at sea, or over the mountains, or that kind of thing, so sometimes there’s not even a burial place, should the family be found later.”

Finding the family later is something that resource-strapped cities and counties struggle with year after year. That’s where Unclaimed Persons steps in, a group of DIY detectives and volunteer genealogists around the country who search to find next of kin.

“We believe that everybody has a story to tell. And every life is worth remembering, and we want families to know what has happened to their family members,” said Minnesota-based Janis Martin, the director of Unclaimed Persons.

Montgomery County is one of more than 50 counties that has worked with the group, and it’s made them be more observant when going to the home of an unclaimed body, says County Coroner Alexander Balacki.

“One time we found a family from a simple greeting card that was on the mantle from a couple Christmases prior that said, ‘Happy holidays from the Smiths,’ and we were able to track them down, and they were a distant relative,” Balacki said.

But more often than not, the answers don’t lie in a greeting card.

So Martin and her army of volunteers mix deep Googling with cross-checking other public databases to cast about for clues. The information they find is then forwarded to county investigators.

“We do not necessarily look for work, because, believe me, there is plenty of work out there that comes our way,” she said.

Unclaimed Persons is now on its 762nd case. Three out of four of those cases were solved.

“Many of the folks who are considered unclaimed persons do have property, and the coroners there are very interested in locating the family, because there will be some kind of inheritance for the family,” Martin said.

But Smolenyak says there’s really no telling how families will react.

“The vast majority of families are pleased to be contacted, even if there had been a falling out, because they would’ve been left wondering for the rest of their lives. But, to be really honest, some are indifferent,” Smolenyak said.

Back at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Doran offered this advice to anyone who picks up the remains of a loved one from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

“You should never take them home and leave them at home,” Doran said.

To be sure, Doran’s in the burial business, so he might be biased, but he said it’s easy for remains sitting around at a house to quickly become undignified.

“Because you start out on the mantle piece then end up on the floor, then you end up in the basement, then you end up in the garage,” he said. “And then everyone dies and 1-800-Got-Trash will come and throw you out.”

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