Will anyone who knew you when you walked the earth be there to bury or cremate you when your time comes? For too many in the D.C. region and around the U.S., the answer is: No.
A six-month investigation by The Washington Post found that tens of thousands of people die in the country every year with no one to bury or cremate them, forcing state, county and local governments to handle those arrangements.
Maryland is one of the few states that tracks the number of unclaimed bodies. The State Anatomy Board told WTOP that 2,510 bodies went unclaimed last year. That’s approximately 3% to 4% of all deaths recorded in the state.
The board said the number of people who die without anyone claiming their remains has increased steadily over the past few years. On average, Maryland spends between $1 million and $2 million a year managing the bodies left unclaimed.
Virginia doesn’t track the number of unclaimed bodies in the state. It leaves that, along with the final handling of remains, to the commonwealth’s counties, cities and towns.
The Virginia Department of Health, however, told WTOP that 301 of 8,683 deaths it investigated last year resulted in bodies that were unclaimed.
In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the District buried or cremated 231 bodies that were never claimed. The D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner told WTOP that it has no estimate on how much the city spends burying or cremating the unclaimed.
Many coroners, and others handling the deceased, estimate as many as 3% of the deceased go unclaimed every year in the U.S. If true, that would be more than 100,000 people who are buried or cremated by the government, according to the Washington Post article. In some areas, those unclaimed are buried in unmarked graves.
The Post found that, in many cases, officials are able to find relatives of the dead, but family members say they don’t want to be involved — or can’t afford to be, citing high funeral and burial costs. In other cases, those deceased had been living isolated lives, with no family members or friends to make final arrangements for them.