Uncovering what happens to the District’s unclaimed dead isn’t simple.
Death comes to all of us, but in some cases, the worldor even next of kin and friendstakes little or no notice.
Two days before last Christmas, according to District officials, Jesus Blanco, a 43-year-old homeless man, froze to death outdoors on the 1400 block of Irving Street NW. His body quickly joined those of approximately 100 corpses left unclaimed in the morgue, under the care of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
As is the case with most of the identified but unclaimed bodies in the city morgue, Blanco’s family either could not be found or would not come forward to pay for his burial or cremation. (The morgue will not disclose the exact reason out of privacy considerations.)
In Blanco’s case, Mary Sebold, director of Charlie’s Place at St. Margaret’s, a homeless outreach service in Northwest, went to the morgue in January with a homeless client who had known Blanco to identify his body. In February, Charlie’s Place attempted to claim Blanco’s body but could not afford the $1,000 that it would cost for cremation. So Charlie’s Place held a memorial service attended by 40 community members, and the city had its own contracted funeral director cremate the body and inurn it at an underground site in Glenwood, Md.
Such a train of events isn’t unusual. This year, the District will order more than 100 cremations for bodies in the city’s morgue that have not been claimed by next of kin or friends. Some families are never informed that one of their members has died. As the Washington Post recently reported, a snafu at Lorton Correctional Complex resulted in a deceased inmate’s family not being told of his demise for four months.
Many of the unclaimed cases are homeless men and women who lived in the District under aliases that did not match their official names in records. Some are poor or elderly people who died in hospitals after checking themselves in under assumed names because they lacked insurance or did not want their insurers to know they were receiving treatment. Some are deceased District residents whose families do not want to pay to bury them.
In general, unclaimed bodies often belong to people who were neglected in life and are now neglected in death.
“Often, the only respect these people get in their lives is when they come to the morgue dead,” says Michelle Mack-Polito, a physician assistant at the medical examiner’s office.
How many unclaimed bodies is too many? At present in the District, about 100 unclaimed bodies await their final resting place in a giant refrigerator at the city morgue, which is designed to accommodate 60 corpses. The bodies are stacked on gurneys or on racks running parallel to the walls.
Comparable figures of unclaimed bodies from previous years are not known because the medical examiner’s office does not have precise tallies.
Morgue officials say there have never been regulations requiring the morgue to keep an annual unclaimed-body count. Plus, the paper filing system has impeded quick and regular counts. This year, however, some 1,750 bodies have been brought to the city morgue for investigation.
The nation’s largest county, mostly urban San Bernadino, Calif., offers a useful comparison. Its coroner’s office expects to investigate about 8,500 deaths this year, with only about 75 bodies remaining unclaimed. In an extra effort during the past two years, the county has helped connect next of kin to 15 unclaimed bodies by posting profiles of the deceased on a Web site, UnclaimedPersons.com.
The entire state of Georgiawith the exception of Atlanta, which has a separate medical examiner’s officeaverages only three to five unclaimed bodies out of about 2,500 brought to the county morgues each year.
“I would have a stroke if my office had about 100 unclaimed bodies a year,” says Kris Sperry, chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia.
Asked about the city’s high rate of unclaimed bodies, Dr. Jonathan Arden, the District’s chief medical examiner, says that his office is making continuing progress in helping next of kin and others claim bodies.
“My goal would be to bring down the number of unclaimed bodies from about 110 to about 75 a year,” says Arden, who notes that attaining such a drop “is a task under our control.” Arden adds that the District will always have a high number of unclaimed cases, because it is a magnet for homeless people, whose next of kin are often elusive.
Understaffing is a big part of the District’s unclaimed-body problem. The city employs five medical legal investigators who attempt to identify the body and the cause and manner of deathnot only in the 100 or so unclaimed cases but also in the roughly 3,800 other death investigations every year that local hospitals cannot complete themselves or that require District oversight. On average, 1,750 are victims of suspicious or unnatural deaths, and, by law, must be brought to the morgue for examinations. In approximately 1,300 of those cases, autopsies are performed by the District’s five forensic specialists.
“My biggest fear is that in a disaster involving scores of dead, we would not be able to handle the workload,” says G. Randall Moshos, director of forensic investigations for the morgue.
Moshos says that he needs seven additional medical legal investigators to routinely perform sufficient research to find families to claim the bodies. He adds that employing a Spanish-speaking investigator would also help. At present, the District bears the costs for storage and final disposition, as well as overtime pay for investigators, so more investigators would result not only in a quicker matching of the deceased with families but could also result in some savings to District coffers.
A backlog in testing has also contributed to the slow pace. Since 1999, the morgue has amassed nearly 1,500 tissue slides in death investigations that await testing in a toxicology lab to help determine the causes of death. The number of outstanding cases may drop next year, after the District opens its own lab. This summer, the District contracted with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to double the number of toxicology cases it completes on behalf of the morgue, to 200 per month.
Improvements won’t come soon enough for some critics. Kelly Bagby, a managing attorney for University Legal Services, argues that “by taking so long to complete its investigations, the medical examiner’s office is delaying families from achieving closure in a timely manner and is delaying the city from making an accurate count of what people are dying from.” Bagby adds that “the backlog for toxicology tests for alcohol and drug use in autopsies is outrageous for certain populations, particularly the mentally disabled.”
Arden points to better organization as part of the solution. “If I could wave a magic wand,” he says, “I would computerize our database system to help us match missing-person queries with our unclaimed-body records.” In fact, the morgue is doing just that: computerizing its record-keeping in the upcoming year with a customized software program called “SkelTrak.”
Cautiously optimistic, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, the council’s watchdog for the morgue, says “the medical examiner’s office has made great improvements, and I think that with additional funding and staff, they will do even better.”
The District does not currently have a potter’s field. The morgue cremates all bodies except for those of military veterans (which go to Quantico instead), those who were people involved in crimes (as victims or perpetrators), and the half-dozen or so that cannot be identified each year.
It was Arden who opted to privatize the cremation of bodies three years ago rather than continue to have the District operate an expensive and unwieldy crematorium. Most recently, the contractor has been Chambers Funeral Home, of Riverdale, Md., located about 6 miles from the morgue.
By contrast, many counties nationwide prefer burial to cremation, though national statistics on public morgue cremation rates do not exist. Cremation has been a common practice in the District for decades, however, especially because lack of space has forced its leaders to increasingly limit the opening of new cemeteries since 1852.
Today, cremated remains are inurned in metal boxes scattered in underground lots outside the District. Only once in the past three years has a family come forward to claim a body after it has been cremated. In that case, the ashes were exhumed and given to the family.
Some corpses go unclaimed because family members say they cannot afford to pay the funeral expenses. In a program started this year by the Department of Health and Human Services, District families can receive $750 for burials and $450 for cremations when they claim next of kin from the morgue. Even if they do not want to claim a body, families can identify it and get information to help them establish Social Security and insurance benefits, as well as gather more information for their family medical histories.
The stories behind unclaimed bodies can be difficult to untangle. In the summer of 2000, a homeless man was found on a sidewalk by a passer-by outside of a shelter in Northwest. The man was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead, and the hospital reported no obvious signs of trauma to the body.
Within two months, the hospital gave up looking for next of kin to claim his body. The morgue sent out its white Ford Econoline mortuary wagon to collect his body, cover it in a bag, place it on a metal tray, and bring it to the morgue, which is on the grounds of the former D.C. General Hospital. The body was forklifted into the refrigerated storage room and left waiting.
The case fell to Mary Beth Petrasek, a medical legal investigator at the morgue. Through police contacts, she found the name of the deceased’s brother from the shelter that had sometimes cared for him. Petrasek made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the brother, and then sent a certified letter informing the brother that he had 30 days to claim the body or else it would be cremated. The letter was returned unopened.
Petrasek then called the shelter, which referred her to another shelter that the deceased man had been known to frequent. At that second shelter, there was a photo of the man that matched a photo of the body taken at the hospital and had the name of a sister who lived out of state. A certified letter was sent to the sister. No response has been received from her, and unless one appears, the morgue will shortly send the unclaimed body to be cremated.
Meanwhile, the city’s morgue continues to try to make a dent in its considerable task. The sound of renovators banging walls and making repairs provided the soundtrack to a recent interview with Arden.
The building’s hallways were stripped of tiles, and its ceilings were open with ventilation ducts exposed. At present, the storage and autopsy rooms do not meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations for safety and proper ventilation, though the renovations should solve those problems by next spring.
“We’re whittling away at our backlogs,” says Arden, “but you have to understand that we’re working under absurd conditions.” CP