With the influx of deaths caused by the novel Coronavirus, important questions about how we store the dead in Canada in times of crisis have been pushed into the spotlight.
The reality is that beyond this crisis, Canadian morgues, medical and private facilities, along with funeral homes, will often keep unclaimed bodies in storage until they can be buried. This brings up the important question: how should we handle abandoned, indigent, and unclaimed bodies in Canada, many of which languish in morgues for weeks or months?
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 provinces, to learn more about how these bodies are processed, and why the numbers of unclaimed are on the rise.Click here to learn about Unclaimed Bodies in America
What is an Unclaimed Body?
An unclaimed body is the remains of a person who has no identifiable next of kin or claimant, the next of kin refuses to take responsibility for the body, or the body is unidentified even after investigation. A claimant can be a relative, a friend, neighbour, church or charitable organization.
When a person dies and no one comes forward to claim the body after a set period of time, an investigation is launched to determine who this person is, and if there is anyone who can claim the body and cover the expenses of burial. If no one is found, the responsibility of interment and cost falls onto the government, often at a county or municipal level.
It is not only the homeless or unidentified whose bodies go unclaimed, it can also include people who have no living relatives and no estate plan in place. There are also situations where the next of kin will refuse responsibility for the body, such as people with no living relatives, estranged families, or people who are too poor to afford the costs of burial. Contrary to popular belief, the next of kin is not legally required to claim a body. Even in provinces that mandate who can claim the body and pay for burial, the laws are rarely enforced.
The laws and regulations for how to process and identify the unclaimed change from province to province in Canada, and even more drastically between states in the United States. Although there are people in the medical field who are working to improve these situations, storage in facilities who are waiting for bodies to be identified due to funding issues and lack of trained staff remains an issue.
Policies and Laws Regarding Unclaimed Bodies in Canada
In Canada, most provinces have an Anatomy Act outlining the policies and responsibilities of identifying and processing unclaimed bodies. For example, in Ontario, death is regulated by the Coronor’s Act 1990 and the Anatomy Act 1990.
The length of time between a person’s death to when they can be considered unclaimed varies across the country. For example, in Ontario the Office of the Chief Coroner will hold a body for 10 days before they consider it unclaimed. After this time has passed, if no one has come forward to claim the body a reasonable search is made to find the next of kin.
A reasonable search is when all avenues of research and investigation for the identity of the body and next of kin or claimant are exhausted. This can include reaching out to the police, veterans affairs, or social workers; examining the patient records, contacting any known next of kin, and even searching through a person’s possessions to find evidence of identity, estate and burial plans.
In 2017, the Office of the Chief Coroner in Ontario introduced the Conducting a Reasonable Next of Kin/Claimant Search for an Unclaimed Body Policy (say that five times fast) to help facilities conduct fair, thorough and reasonable searches. They also made changes to their tracking system to be more concise and up-to-date with data around unclaimed bodies.
The responsibility for conducting this search depends on how the person died. If death occurred due to an accident, suicide, murder, or other suspicious circumstance, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Chief Coroner for the province. If the death occurs at a hospital, or long-term facility, and is considered a natural or expected death, it is the duty of that facility to conduct the reasonable search.
The Public Trustee Office can also be contacted to aid with a reasonable search to look into the estate of the deceased. If the estate is more than $10,000 after funeral and administration fees are paid, the Public Trustee will take over the case and plan the burial. If it is less than this amount, the case is handed to the Office of the Coroner who will then issue a warrant to the municipality for burial as outlined in the Anatomy Act for that province. The city where the person has died pays for the funeral, and will employ a local funeral home to manage the burial.
Ideally, a reasonable search should take 3-6 weeks to complete, but since we do not live in an ideal world, it can take much longer. This leads to the issue mentioned above of morgues and storage facilities holding on to unclaimed remains for months at a time.
What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies in Canada?
Before burial, unclaimed bodies are stored in morgues of hospitals, long-term facilities, funeral homes, and private storage facilities. When the body has been fully processed, however, unclaimed bodies are buried, usually with no embalming in unmarked plots depending on the province and burial ground.
Brett Watson, Director of the Funeral Service Association of Canada, explained to us that this is done in case the next of kin is discovered after burial, and wants to claim the body to be buried in another location, or they wish to purchase a grave marker for the plot. Embalming is not practiced to save money, and it can be an invasive procedure that could go against their wishes.
Watson went on to explain that another reason for burial over cremation is to respect the potential cultural and religious beliefs the unclaimed may have—some cultures and religions such as Muslims and Jews do not practice cremation.
Where unclaimed bodies are buried can also change depending on the province, county, or city. In Calgary, for example, burial usually occurs within government owned cemeteries, but it can also be a private burial ground. Since it is paid for by the municipality, most burials tend to be done on the outskirts of cities where there is more space and the burial fees are lower.
“The costs of the unclaimed person’s funeral, related expenses and burial is covered by their social assistance program,” explains Nathan Romagnoli, Owner and Inspired Funeral Director from eco Cremation & Burial Services Inc. “Many cemeteries refuse to accept the value of this low rate of pay. Therefore, only a select few cemeteries will accept the unclaimed decedents. The cemeteries are often outside of the city core.”
There is no formal burial ceremony for an unclaimed body, but funeral homes do their best to offer some form of ritual, often done by funeral staff. Based on the low pay of this work, it is often done at the expense of the funeral staff with the help of volunteers who take the time out of their busy schedules to ensure that the unclaimed burials are witnessed and treated with the same level of respect as any other burial.
This work includes the long drives to the outskirts of cities, where most unclaimed are laid to rest. “Our company provides volunteer pallbearers to carry their caskets,” Romagnoli told us, “and we offer the ability to have words spoken aloud or silently, before laying a single flower and earth with our hands on their caskets.”
How many Unclaimed Bodies in Canada are there?
It is hard to get a number at a federal level, and not all provinces publish their reports detailing how many bodies go unclaimed every year. Ontario does publish an annual report on unclaimed bodies, and with the recent updates in tracking this data it is becoming more precise. There has been an alarming increase in unclaimed bodies starting back in 2006 when the number of unclaimed in Ontario was 106, and by 2015 the number more than doubled to 361—it is still rising. The latest report, published in 2019, has the total number of unclaimed bodies in 2017 at 401, and in 2018 there were 473 unclaimed bodies buried.
Why has there been such an increase, even before COVID-19? “We cannot say with certainty why decedents go unclaimed,” Cheryl Mahyr, Issues Manager from the Office of the Chief Coroner in Ontario, told TalkDeath. “We can only say anecdotally that after conducting searches for claimants, some decedents have no living relatives or they may have been estranged from their relatives for a number of years.”
Mahyr notes that “Some decedents may have lived a reclusive lifestyle and formed few community connections during the latter part of their life. Others may have family or close friends but they may not be in a financial position to take responsibility for disposition so they would decline to claim the body.”
There will always be unclaimed bodies in Canada. What can we do about it?
Bodies have gone unclaimed for as long as people have been dying. There will always be unclaimed bodies, but the systems around the abandoned, indigent, and unclaimed need to be improved.
A light at the end of this bureaucratic tunnel is that there are professionals within the 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.
“What we can do is demand that the social systems in hospital settings, etc., be improved.” Romagnoli stresses, this involves “admission into hospitals [including information] on next of kin and legitimate contact information for them. Industry know-how to social workers to help associates and family alike who are afraid of costs be connected with the right firms like ours who are committed to helping citizens receive proper funding where entitled. All helping professions can become more in tune with the crisis to prevent folks from becoming unclaimed.”
It is important we remember and consider the moral and cultural aspects of treatment of our unclaimed bodies in Canada in order to maintain ethical standards appropriate for all.
- Cover image of a morgue via P.J.L Laurens.