Unclaimed bodies create issues for coroner, taxpayers and funeral homes

Unclaimed bodies create issues for coroner, taxpayers and funeral homes
The desk of Joy Yates is covered with cases in which she tries to locate family members of people who have died. It's tedious, frustrating and never ending for the Harrison County Coroner's Office. (Source: wlox)

HARRISON COUNTY, Miss. (WLOX) - There’s an issue that every county coroner’s office has been dealing with for years that you may never have realized.

The problem is unclaimed bodies, and what to do with them.

And there doesn’t seem to be a resolution any time soon, but that’s not stopping those dedicated to helping those left behind.

The staff of Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer is inundated with paperwork trying to track down relatives of people who have died.

“Out of those 15 to 20 cases a month that we do have to look for, we’re usually able to find somebody — a distant relative — through the resources that we have,” said Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer. “And out of those, usually about 15 to 20 a year that we have are never claimed."

And long-time staffer Joy Yates takes it personally.

“For someone to pass away, and there not being anyone to notify, it’s just heartbreaking,” she said.

The surprise and the frustration is that in some of these cases, family members are found, but they want nothing to do with the deceased.

“We’re not talking about a second or third cousin,” Switzer said. “We’ve had folks that have parents and their kids. And then you have moms and dads and for whatever reason, whether it be financial or whether it be just that the fact that they don’t want to deal with it, they never claim them.”

The problem with unclaimed bodies has been going on for a long time. It is taking a toll on staff workers and taxpayers as well as the funeral homes who volunteer to help.

Unclaimed bodies are eventually cremated at the coroner’s direction for $500 paid for by the county.

And that’s little in exchange for the storage and services provided by every funeral home.

“Not everybody has the means to handle the financial burdens,” said Jeffrey O’Keefe Jr., with Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home. “So, it’s really a matter of assisting the community when it needs to happen as well as the coroner’s office.”

In the meantime, the cremains are stacking up in a secure location, just in case someone shows up.

But Yates is not one to give up easily.

“There should be someone out there that cares for everyone,” she said. “And, I just don’t want to see anybody go to their final disposition with no one knowing that they’ve passed away.”

Switzer is hoping to find a solution for a permanent storage for the cremains, possibly in the form of a central burial site in the county.

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