SPECIAL REPORT: Unclaimed Bodies - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

SPECIAL REPORT: Unclaimed Bodies

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Taxpayers may end up paying to cremate bodies that are unclaimed at the county morgue Taxpayers may end up paying to cremate bodies that are unclaimed at the county morgue

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Taxpayers in North Carolina may not know that they cover the costs for dozens of cremations every year. Chances are, they have no idea who the deceased person is, where they came from, or how they died.

When most people die, they have family members or friends who claim the body, and who make sure the expenses are paid for a funeral or final service. But, when relatives can't be found after someone dies, the taxpayers of North Carolina pay to give those people a final farewell.

"The last option is for us, the state of North Carolina to handle the disposition," said Clyde Gibbs, a Medical Examiner Specialist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill. "That means we pay for the cremation, and we also follow through on the disposition of the ashes by scattering them at sea at a later date."

When a body is sent to the Office of the State Medical Examiner for an autopsy, the costs to cremate that body and dispose of the ashes will fall on the State of North Carolina. When someone dies under more natural causes, like passing away at a nursing home, a hospital or at home, where a doctor would sign a death certificate, local counties may handle the arrangements.

After a body goes unclaimed in the county morgue for ten days, the call goes out to the Department of Social Services to begin the process of making final arrangements.

"I try to find family members if I can," said Susie Springer of the Department of Social Services in New Hanover County. She works to find relatives of the deceased, to see if they want to take responsibility for final services. Sometimes, no family members can be found. Other times, the family members are far removed from the deceased, and will not accept that responsibility.

"You would hope family members would take care of their own," said Springer.  "But, it doesn't always happen."

With funeral costs rising into the thousands of dollars, it's not unusual for representatives like Springer or Gibbs to hear family members say they just can't afford to pay for their relative's funeral.

"Often times the family member hasn't seen this person in 20-25 years," Springer said. "They'll say ‘I can barely take care of myself, and I can't be responsible for a final disposition of my uncle or other relative'."

"The cases that are not ideal are when we are talking to the family (of the deceased), but they don't make a decision," said Gibbs. "Those are the worse cases because in the beginning they'll say ‘We do want to do something (for the deceased)', then we wait and a month later, they still haven't done anything.  We can't get in touch with them, and so we will go forward with the cremation. If they call back we'd say ‘We worked with you in good faith, and you didn't work with us'."

Some of the unclaimed bodies are donated to science. Others will be donated to schools for educational purposes. Most, though, are cremated through contracts with funeral homes. The number of bodies cremated through the OCME has risen through the years:

                YEAR                      # of Bodies Donated                       # of Bodies Cremated

                2002                                         9                                                           21

                2003                                       15                                                           29

                2004                                       13                                                           34

                2005                                         8                                                           40

                2006                                         8                                                           40

                2007                                         5                                                           54

                2008                                         0                                                           69

                2009                                         1                                                           57

                2010                                         2                                                           73

                2011                                         0                                                           72

"Before the numbers started to rise, I would tell the family about the process involved, that we would cremate the body and scatter the ashes, and two days later they would call back and say they had the money and would claim the body," said Gibbs.  "Now, it's almost within a day of getting the body, I'm getting a phone call from the family saying ‘We can't do anything.' It seems like people are financially hurting all across the board."

The OCME pays $175 to local funeral homes to cremate an unclaimed body. With more than 70 cremations in each of the past two years, that's more than $25,000 in taxpayer money used for dispositions. In comparison, New Hanover County's Department of Social Services has paid $500 in each of the past two years for local funeral homes to cremate an unclaimed body. In 2009/10, the county paid $450 per body. Numbers provided by the DSS office show an average of nine bodies over that three year span, meaning the county paid out more than $13,000 for that purpose.

Recouping the expense often proves to be a futile effort. "We can send a letter to our clerk of court trying to get reimbursed," said Springer. "But they (the deceased) usually don't have an estate to be billed."

"A lot of the times the individuals we get in here, the deceased, just don't have the finances," said Gibbs. "They never had property, cars, or assets that can be liquidated to pay for their services."

If you think $500 dollars is high for a county to pay for cremation and scattering of ashes, consider this. WECT checked with several local funeral homes, and found the cost for a cremation is closer to $1000. In this case, it seems that taxpayers are getting a discount when paying for these services to give the unclaimed a respectful farewell.

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