Caitlin Doughty from Ask a Mortician recently posted a video about Peter Stefan and the scandal surrounding his funeral home. Stefan, a funeral director from Worcester, MA, had his license suspended in 2019 when authorities found nearly a dozen decomposing and unidentified bodies in his possession (note: Stefan’s license was reinstated in early 2020). Doughty’s video highlights an important issue: how should we handle abandoned, indigent, and unclaimed bodies in America, many of which languish in morgues for weeks or months?

With the influx of deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, important questions about how we store the dead in times of crisis have been pushed into the spotlight. 

The reality is that beyond this crisis, morgues, medical and private facilities, along with funeral homes, will often keep unclaimed bodies in storage until they can be cremated and buried in mass graves.

Who these unclaimed bodies belonged to, and what led them to become unclaimed is not a simple answer. We reached out to different death professionals, and dove into laws and policies across the states, to learn more about how these bodies are processed, and why the numbers of unclaimed are on the rise.

This is What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies in America

Policies and Laws Regarding Unclaimed Bodies in America

Autopsy, by Enrique Simonet, 1890. Museum of Málaga, Málaga, Spain. In the 1800s, unclaimed bodies would be used by medical schools for dissections. The practice does continue to this day in some parts of America.

In the United States, when a body goes unclaimed it becomes the responsibility of the government, which is similar to Canada, but the laws and regulations vary more widely than they do in Canada.

In 1831 and 1832, Anatomy Acts were passed in many states that allowed for medical schools to dissect unclaimed bodies. Unfortunately, many of these bodies went unclaimed because the families were too poor to afford a funeral. This led to a public outcry that resulted in the banning of body donations from the unclaimed in many states. In states like Oregon however, the unclaimed are still largely going to medical schools, where the institution pays for the cremation of the remains. 

America has no uniform system for managing the unclaimed. The only federal level role for the unclaimed dead falls with The Department of Veteran Affairs, who will arrange a burial in a military cemetery for veterans.

There is no standard practice around reasonable searches (the various avenues of research and investigation for the identity of the body and next of kin or claimant), with laws also varying by state, county, and city. Though Joshua Slocum, Executive Director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, explains that most states require that the government must make a good faith effort to locate next of kin.

Some states consider a few days sufficient for a search, while others say the body must be held for a month and can only be buried or cremated if the kin is not found in that amount of time.

What happens to the Abandoned, Indigent, or Unclaimed Body in America?

Unclaimed bodies are mostly cremated in the United States. Cremation lowers the cost to the government, and is more efficient for storage. The ashes are often buried in a large collective grave, or in a columbarium (above ground mausoleum for urns). Ashes may also be stored in morgues, funeral homes, medical or private storage facilities. The state usually keeps a record of the person’s identity, if known, and where the urn was buried. 

A sad stone in the old Potters Field. Westminster, Maryland. This is the final resting place of the unwanted and unidentified. Some may have died at the nearby Almshouse, which is now part of the Carroll County Farm Museum. Image via Bryan Costin.

In Massachusetts, state law allows a funeral establishment to scatter unclaimed cremated remains in a cemetery area designated for that purpose after 12 months. The Oregon State Hospital has thousands of cremated remains in storage, and recently published an online searchable database to help identify next of kin.

Funeral homes may have what is known as the “cremation closet.” This is a non-public area where the unclaimed cremated remains are stored as they wait for a more permanent interment. And though there exists many horror stories about body storage, most funeral homes are respectful to the remains they have onsite, and do their due diligence to identify next of kin or arrange a burial. 

 Governments don’t have an emotional interest in the unclaimed dead. That’s not mean or uncaring, it’s just a fact. 

Peter Stefan, mentioned above, has around 300 stored cremated remains – some that date back to 100 years – with the full intention of giving each one a proper burial. His compassion towards the unclaimed is admirable, but he is held back by bureaucracy and lack of funding. This is not just an isolated case as funeral homes, medical facilities, and storage facilities across the United States lack funding for proper burial, don’t have the staffing and resources to conduct their own reasonable searches, or must wait for authorities to close the cases surrounding their deaths.  

In states that bury the unclaimed, most have either bought a number of plots in an existing cemetery, or, a few places like New York City, have their own land that they use as a cemetery for the unclaimed dead. In fact, Hart Island in New York City is the largest tax-funded burial ground in North America with more than one million people buried in mass graves since 1875. 

A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890 by Jacob Riis

Melinda Hunt founded The Hart Island Project, which maintains an on-line database of people buried between 1980 and present as well as maps of their grave locations. Hunt told us that, prior to COVID-19, 6-10% of recorded deaths in NYC are unclaimed and buried on Hart Island.

Rituals around the burial of the unclaimed are not common. “First, some things to remember about unclaimed bodies.” Slocum explains, “People tend to ask questions like, ‘Does anyone do a ritual for them?’ This assumes that there’s something ‘wrong’ or ‘cold’ about not doing ceremonies for the unclaimed dead. But that’s not really straightforward, is it? The dead don’t know what we do or don’t do with their bodies. It’s not possible to ‘insult’ or ‘neglect’ an unclaimed body. There is no person there who is experiencing anything.”

Slocum argues that the lack of ritual is not cold or cruel; it’s logistics. “Governments don’t have an emotional interest in the unclaimed dead. That’s not mean or uncaring, it’s just a fact. Governments need to take care of getting the body buried, but they don’t have any family sentiment toward the unclaimed dead.”

That being said, there are still some states that have rituals around unclaimed burials. In Los Angeles, unclaimed bodies are cremated if no one comes to retrieve them within a month of death, after which the remains are kept in the county coroner’s office for another three years. At this point, the remains are buried in a mass grave with an annual interfaith funeral—a practice that dates to the 1890s.

Remember Oregon? They also have rituals around the cremation of their unclaimed bodies, and will even help pay for additional funeral costs if the next of kin are discovered.

How many Unclaimed Bodies are there in America?

Hart Island. Photo via Francisco Daum

It is difficult to know, since the processes around dealing with the unclaimed vary from state, county or city. Though Slocum explained there are many states that require that the names of the unclaimed are recorded, so there is a way to figure out how many are unclaimed in different regions around the country. For example, in Los Angeles, back in 2018 they buried 1,457 people in their annual burial ceremony.

 There will always be unclaimed bodies, but the systems around the abandoned, indigent, and unclaimed needs to be improved.  

According to The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System “It is estimated that 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year, with approximately 1,000 of those bodies remaining unidentified after one year.” For every 4,400 bodies, about 25% remain unidentified after one year, and 14% are buried or cremated. But again, this is just an estimate, since not all unclaimed bodies are entered into these types of databases, and not all unclaimed bodies are missing persons. Nor are these databases connected.

The political realities of death and race in America also adds to the difficulty in accessing the number of unclaimed. In the American South for example, activists are trying to find and record the forgotten bodies of Mexican migrants, many of whom travel with few documents. Elsewhere, many of the unclaimed come from lower-socio economic areas, where families who cannot afford the cost of a funeral may not claim a body. 

There will always be unclaimed bodies in America. What can we do about it?

There will always be unclaimed bodies in America, but the systems in place to handle the abandoned, indigent, and unclaimed clearly needs improvement. 

A light at the end of this bureaucratic tunnel are the professionals within various healthcare organizations, funeral homes and coroner’s office that are working to improve this situation. 

Some tips on how facilities and institutions can improve the situation include prioritizing advanced care planning, documenting wishes and claimant information, and creating a plan within the organization that follows the reasonable search. All facilities involved with the unclaimed need to communicate more and help and support each other.

So, this is what happens to unclaimed bodies in America. It is important we remember and consider the moral and cultural aspects of treatment of our unclaimed bodies in order to maintain ethical standards appropriate for all.


  1. of course it is a sad situation when a body goes unclaimed after his or her death.
    but there is another problem what happens like in my case I have some semi serious health issues but it seems I may live to 75 or 80 years old currently I am 60 I have asthma and since a teen and have contracted Meningitis on 2018.
    the problems that i have with my family do not lead me believe that they will resolved any time soon and I am definitely not going to care as I get either sicker or older to solve them it is too stressful to deal with my relatives who do not want to change their ways.
    I have no interest in spending 20 to 40 thousand on a burial site not even 5000 dollars to be put in the ground or cremated specially that I am the last person my family thinks of when they wish to celebrate something but I am the first they think of when money is needed.
    I am not rich and I do not see the point in paying for something that I will not need and once I am gone specially since I have leaved around my family always but was shocked when my sisters told me that for years they did not know where I was I had to remind them that I was at all their daughters birth day celebration, Easter, mother’s day, father’s day, July 4th celebration, spent countless hours watching national soccer games with my family and boxing matches (I am Mexican), Olympic games.
    My younger son and my ex wife lied to me through out my son’s high school years and was made to believe that he wanted to go to the police academy but one day after graduation le left for the military and I totally found out about it by accident when my son and his friends were drunk at a back yard party on the back of our home.
    My oldest son right now is the only one to whom I feel any loyalty but he is manipulated by my ex to the point that he is pretty much useless has no plans for the future and seems not interested in developing any type of career and try to get a job in his field in which he got a degree or something related to it.
    however he is my son and would like not to leave any debt for him so my question is what happens if no one claims my body when I die.
    My ex is a real piece of work while we were ok financially she was great but as financially thing took a bad turn due to the financial crisis we had because of me being unemployed due to down sizing of the company I worked for and because being unable to keep a job due to my illness I began to notice that she had been living a double life for quite a few years and I trusted her too much and my eyes were open way to late to be prepare for anything. when I was release from the hospital she let everyone know that she would not take care of me because she was too busy so I ended up moving with my sister yes the one that told me that they had no seen my face for years but of course she was willing to take me in as long as paid rent.
    I do not expect my ex to claim any financial responsibility over my death since she filed for divorce as I was lying in the recovery room after spending 3 weeks in the I C U and advised me that she had filed for divorce.
    I do not want to be a burden to my son on my death so what is the best way to abandon by body and not have anyone come after my older son for the expenses.
    True I am no angel I never claimed to be but I have never betrayed anyone nor abandoned anyone on their time of need but obviously it is definitely time I start to prepare myself for the worst and hopefully it will not be so bad.

    thanks and I hope you can give me some pointers on what to do I really do not want to leave any debt for my older son or anyone actually I want to die and hopefully finally rest in peace.

    I do not want a burial, it is just too expensive, I do not want to be cremated at a funeral home because that is also expensive.
    I have read in some articles that you can be cremated for around 500 dollars but no one advertises where those prices can be found I wish to donate by body to science so they can maybe get some benefit out of it but not sure if there are any costs involved.
    if no one claims my body will the state or hospital try to collect from my next of kin by biggest fear is that I abandon my body and my oldest son receives a bill for my disposal.
    I do have some assets but like I said I have no interest in spending any money to dispose of my body when I am dead.

    1. I hear you Jose,
      We are both rocking the same both.
      I have just one son, he is an adult in his own right, approaching 40.
      His wife pulls all the strings and has driven a wedge between my and
      my son and my wife of 42 years. Naturally, my son sides with his wife.
      I have been diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. I had put an
      Health Advance Directive in place, made up a will and also arranged
      or have my body donated to science as a Plan A or if that is not possible
      at the time of my passing, to have my body cremated as a Plan B.
      So when I pass on the only thing they would need to do is just make one
      damn phone call and everything will be taken care of, no need to add
      more stress at such a stressful time.
      But this bitch of a daughter-in-law has created so much havoc in our
      lives that I am now making arrangements to revoke everything I did for
      a smooth “transition” to one which creates nothing but havoc for the
      family when I pass on. Since they have ALL turned against me, why should
      I make things easy on them. I have a sizable estate, NOT huge but sizable
      enough…fuck them all, let them go to probate court to fight about it after
      my death and let the attorneys eat most of it and they take whatever is left
      after all court and attorney dues are paid.
      Fuck them all.

  2. Consider donating your body to science. It is free.

    1. Yes, it’s true and they take care of ALL transportation expenses and scatter you ashes
      at sea in the Pacific Northwest. I am planning to do that, signed up already.

  3. donate your body for free to the body farm.. in my opinion as long as you meet the standards that os the most economical way to benefit, yourself, your children and society. not wishing I’ll health on you,, simply trying to assist. https://fac.utk.edu/body-donation/

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