TUPELO – Notifying families when a relative dies is one of the hardest parts of Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green’s job, but she said it’s also sad when she can’t find anyone to notify.
Right now she has the ashes of eight people who died here that have not been claimed by friends or family.
There’s no official policy from the Lee County Board of Supervisors on how to discard remains of unclaimed deceased in the county, so Green will keep them.
She keeps ashes of three cremated people in her office and another five in a small storage kept for the coroner’s office. She believes the most respectful way to maintain the eight boxes of ashes is keeping them stored next to paperwork and other records with the office.
“When it gets to be a storage issue, we’ll have to look at something else,” Green said.
Most of these people died of natural causes in their 60s, according death certificate information received from Green. The youngest, 41, died from a drug overdose at the Salvation Army in Tupelo, while another, 66, died at North Mississippi
Medical Center from complications of severe alcohol withdrawals.
Green said her job normally involves working with families of people who have died, people coping with grief and loss. However, she said when no one is available to contact about news of someone’s death, that’s also a sad situation. Often unclaimed dead had estranged relationships with their families, while others lived as recluses.
Lee County has had about one unclaimed death annually since 2006. Each time it happens, the coroner notifies County Administrator Sean Thompson, who then seeks to find people thought to be next of kin. The process typically takes from two weeks to two months.
Certified letters are sent to last known addresses of people thought to be family of the dead.
Connecting family with unclaimed dead family members limits local governments from having to pay costs associated with deaths, but it also has personal benefits of families having closure when someone dies. But not all families care when a relative dies.
“We’ve had some who were estranged,” he said. “I feel like if we do make contact with these people, sometimes it’s like we’re dredging up bad blood.”
The process of seeking out next of kin is required by state law, which requires “reasonable efforts” by the Board of Supervisors for five days after receiving notice from the coroner of the person’s death.
In Lee County, even if the family of the dead person come forth after the cremation, they will not receive the ashes. Thompson said this may sound heartless and sad, but the policy is in place to keep people unable to afford costs associated with someone’s death to have the county pay them and then hand over remains.
“It’s a delicate matter on several fronts,” Thompson said.
Green has served as coroner since the county began cremating unclaimed deceased seven years ago and has no objection to keeping their ashes, which do not require regulation by the state Department of Health, in her office and other storage space. So far she isn’t hanging on to any ashes that have been claimed.
“I wouldn’t do anything to dishonor them,” Green said.
As for how long Green plans to keep these ashes, she isn’t sure. Thompson said unless the coroner asks for a policy for ashes disposal sooner, he’ll likely wait to create one when another person serves as county coroner.
“We’ll have to find a potter’s field,” he said. “We’d make sure we’re respectful with them.”
Statewide, each county is responsible for a disposal policy of unclaimed remains of dead people. Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart, president of the Mississippi Coroner and Medical Examiners Association, said most counties in the state do not have cemeteries designated for unclaimed people or paupers. Hinds County, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the state, has a paupers site where the county also puts unclaimed people, usually about a dozen a year.
“It’s a county by county issue,” Grisham-Stewart said. “There’s no law that an individual has to be buried after a certain time after cremation.”
Nationally, laws on how to proceed with unclaimed bodies differ from state to state. Some counties throughout the country have websites dedicated to searching for unclaimed dead.
While no comprehensive data is kept nationally, concerns with unclaimed deaths is an issue that impacts each state. In 2007, the federal Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System created a database to track unidentified dead and later added a database for missing people. A database for unclaimed people was created in 2010, which provided access to search tools that coroners now use to help locate families of unclaimed people.
B.J. Spamer, director of the training and analysis division of NamUs, said the database on unclaimed people, which can be accessed at claimus.org, currently has information on 370 individuals from 20 states.
The database is set up to host nationwide data and continues to inform coroners and medical examiners throughout the country about the service. No information from anyone who died in Mississippi is included in the database.
“The unclaimed system is relatively new,” Spamer said. “We hope to have more people throughout the country use it.”
Green was unaware of the NamUs database and ways the service provides help when searching for next of kin. She said she will look into using the system the next time the county has an unclaimed person.
“I’m always exploring ways we can get more information,” she said. “Now that I know about it, I’ll check into it.”