Expert Commentary

Unclaimed bodies: Who they are and how they died. A look at Indiana.

A study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences explores the unclaimed dead, including who they are, why they aren't claimed and how coroner offices process them.

unclaimed body coroner medical examiner dead
(Jim Grey/Flickr)

A 2016 study explores the issue of the unclaimed dead – who they are, how they died and how long they waited in a coroner’s office before burial or cremation.

The issue: When individuals pass away and family members cannot be found, government officials must decide what to do with unclaimed bodies. Policies often differ among the states in terms of how the dead should be legally identified, who can claim their bodies and whether the unclaimed should be buried, cremated or donated to educational programs, including medical schools.

News organizations in various parts of the country have reported rising numbers of unclaimed bodies in their communities. In Seattle, officials suggested the increase is tied to a spike in the county’s homeless population. In Ohio, many indigent deceased went unclaimed because families could not afford funeral costs.

In early 2016, the Massachusetts state medical examiner’s office, worried it might run out of room to store bodies, nearly doubled the amount it pays funeral homes to take the unclaimed and perform funerals. Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill in August 2016 that prohibits educational institutions from using their bodies for embalming, dissection or autopsy without written permission from their spouses or next of kin.

An academic study worth reading: “Who are the Unclaimed Dead?” published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2016.

Study summary: Kenna Quinet and Samuel Nunn of Indiana University-Purdue University teamed up with Alfarena Ballew of the Marion County Coroner’s Office in Indianapolis to fill a gap in research about the unclaimed. Their study focused on the characteristics of individuals whose dead bodies were managed by the Marion County Coroner’s Office between 2004 and 2011. In Indiana, a body is designated as unclaimed if someone cannot be located to take custody of it or if someone can be located but that person will not assume financial responsibility for disposition of the body.

Quinet, Nunn and Ballew analyzed data collected from a total of 127 unclaimed dead as well as 10,703 individuals who died and were claimed by their next of kin during that time period. The authors suggest that having more information about the unclaimed will help government leaders better understand the problem. “Understanding the nature and characteristics of the unclaimed dead and the factors involved in going unclaimed might strengthen the ability of public authorities to reduce the numbers of unclaimed dead,” they write.

Key takeaways from the study:    

  • The unclaimed dead were primarily male (86 percent). Their average age was 58 years – 18 years younger than the average age of all deaths that occurred in this area during this time period.
  • All of the unclaimed dead were either white (71 percent) or black (29 percent). These demographics are somewhat different than the demographics of the people who died and whose bodies were claimed by family and other next of kin. Among the claimed bodies, 68 percent were white, 28 percent were black and 4 percent were from other races and ethnic groups.
  • Almost three-quarters of the unclaimed died of natural causes while 16 percent died as the result of an accident and about 9 percent died of suicide. In comparison, half of claimed individuals died from natural causes, about one-third died as a result of an accident and more than 10 percent were suicides.
  • Almost 43 percent of deaths among the unclaimed were heart related. Another 9 percent were due to drug overdoses and 6 percent were the result of gunshots.
  • Most (65 percent) of the unclaimed died at home compared to 25 percent of most Americans nationally. Fourteen percent of the unclaimed died at a hospital and 10 percent, most of whom were homeless, died outdoors.
  • More than one-third of the unclaimed stayed in the coroner’s office for more than four months before they were cremated or buried. Thirteen percent stayed at the coroner’s office for six months to a year.
  • All of the unclaimed were identified. However, most were not identified through “legal positive ID” methods – identification by fingerprints, DNA, immediate family members or spouses. Almost three-fourths of the unclaimed were identified via “alternative” methods such as driver’s licenses, friends, roommates, healthcare personnel and property managers.
  • It was not clear why some next of kin (NoK) refused to take custody of the bodies of the deceased. “In some cases, NoK came forward to claim clothes and personal belongings … but did not claim the body. Reasons for refusal to claim may be because family members do not have the financial resources for cremation or burial (and/or are not eligible for assistance) or because of estrangement. In some cases, the reason for not claiming a decedent may be unknown. Also affecting the management of unclaimed dead are state laws regulating who is even eligible to claim or identify a decedent.”

Helpful resources for reporters:

  • The National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is made up of three databases, including a database of people who have died and been identified but have not been claimed by next of kin.
  • The National Funeral Directors Association releases reports on funeral costs and trends. The median cost of a funeral rose by almost 30 percent to $7,181 between 2004 and 2014.
  • A 2013 report from the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona suggests that about one-third of the unauthorized migrants who died along the U.S.-Mexico border between 1990 and 2012 remain unidentified.

Related research:

  • A 2015 study published in the Journal of Public Health focuses on the prevalence of unclaimed homeless bodies in India.
  • A 2012 study published in Clinical Anatomy examines the ethics of using unclaimed bodies for public exhibits and anatomy studies, including medical school dissections.
  • A 2007 paper by researchers at New York University School of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine looks at the history of body acquisition for medical school study.


This image was obtained from the Flickr account of Jim Grey and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

About The Author