Monday, January 4, 2010

Unclaimed


Many of us take it for granted that when we die our loved ones, if not able to be present at the time of death, will certainly be around for the memorial service or burial.

But what of the hundreds that die completely alone each year. And what happens when no one comes to claim the body?

In the United States, that depends on where you die. Every State requires that first, unclaimed bodies must be offered to medical schools or places that use cadavers for education. After that it's either up to the county, township, city or state, depending on the statutes in place. Some states bury, some cremate. The cost of this is paid by the jurisdiction. What is the average cost? In 2008 the average cost for an unclaimed person's burial was $2,125. Some states actually have bodies sitting in morgues for years because the county or state is out of money to dispose of the body.

The numbers of unclaimed persons are on the rise, up between 25 and 50% this year, and it's not because more people are dying alone, but because families aren't able to afford it.

In France the law entitles everyone to a proper burial in a cemetery. However, taking this entitlement a step further, a volunteer group recently formed in Paris called "Les Morts de la Rue" (the dead of the streets) to make sure that every unclaimed body has at least one person present to witness the burial. Usually something is said about the date of birth and death, or the meaning of the deceased's name.

In India, there is a group called the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, made up of a few volunteers who preform the last rites and cremation of the unclaimed bodies in New Delhi. They are "on call" to bestow this religious gift those who have no one.

While I couldn't find any particular organization that presides at unclaimed burials in the US, I did find a group present at soldier's burials. If you are a soldier being buried in Arlington National Cemetery, you are guaranteed to be buried with someone present. Such is the mission of the "Arlington Ladies". Created in 1973, they have ensured that since their inception, no one buried in Arlington has been buried alone. The group is made up of about 60 members of the Officers Wives Club. They volunteer once a month in pairs, to attend the average of 10-20 interments daily.

The ceremonial sequence is always the same, the Arlington Lady stands silent holding the arm of an escort from the Army's Old Guard. Once the folded flag is presented to the soldier's next of kin, the Arlington lady steps forward and presents a card and words of condolence. She then steps back to the escort and looks straight ahead for the remainder of the cermony. There is a dress code, no slacks can be worn. There is no inclement weather policy, they are present rain, snow or sun.

There is a lot of talk about dignity in death, especially in palliative care. I wonder to what extent this goes... should we be organizing grass roots volunteer groups like the Les Morts de la Rue or the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal for the unclaimed of our society? Or is that going too far?


*flag photo credit eqqman on Flikr

6 Responses to “Unclaimed”

brimcmike said...
January 4, 2010 at 7:38 PM

Dear Amy,

As always, a great post, thanks.

It reminds me of the grassroots effort of the Maine Troop Greeters, which I heard about on NPR's Talk of the Nation this past Veterans Day. The distinctions are obvious, but I think the intrinsic motivation and collective effort to faithfully and consistently do the right thing of honoring others is apt.

I'll snoop around on this issue to see what's done about it here in Beantown.


Eric Widera said...
January 5, 2010 at 8:24 PM

This reminds me of the This American Life episode "Home Alone" (one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite radio shows. It documents
what happens after the death of a 79-year-old woman who loved alone for decades and has no next of kin. Within this episode they document a once a year burial ceremony in LA for about 1900 unclaimed bodies.


Amy Clarkson MD said...
January 6, 2010 at 6:49 AM

There's a common thread here, with excellent information coming from NPR. Thanks brimcmike for the link to the Maine Troop Greeters. And, Eric, I just listened to the piece from This American Life. It really puts a personal story to the unclaimed.

Thanks for sharing


Erin said...
January 21, 2010 at 9:43 PM

Death, as it relates to the individual, is an obviously extremely grief stricken process. Though there are certain situations in which the unclaimed burial route is the only feasible option, an aid to the grieving process may be to make every effort to find the identity of the deceased.

The organization based in India that is mentioned here in the article is doing a most noble thing and is accomplishing a goal that is specifically two-fold, but there are definitely infinitely many rewards to the work that they are doing as opposed to what is simply seen on the surface. As healthcare professionals, this aids us in the way that emotions are considerably lighter in patients and in their families when a situation such as the aforementioned is avoided.

Interesting topic, Amy! Thanks so much for your insight!


Erin said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Death, as it relates to the individual, is an obviously extremely grief stricken process. Though there are certain situations in which the unclaimed burial route is the only feasible option, an aid to the grieving process may be to make every effort to find the identity of the deceased.

The organization based in India that is mentioned here in the article is doing a most noble thing and is accomplishing a goal that is specifically two-fold, but there are definitely infinitely many rewards to the work that they are doing as opposed to what is simply seen on the surface. As healthcare professionals, this aids us in the way that emotions are considerably lighter in patients and in their families when a situation such as the aforementioned is avoided.

Interesting topic, Amy! Thanks so much for your insight!


Eric Widera said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

This reminds me of the This American Life episode "Home Alone" (one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite radio shows. It documents
what happens after the death of a 79-year-old woman who loved alone for decades and has no next of kin. Within this episode they document a once a year burial ceremony in LA for about 1900 unclaimed bodies.