Dead, alone, and unclaimed: Here’s what happens when someone dies without family or money

AGAWAM, Mass. (WWLP) - Most people like to think that after they die, they'll be memorialized at a service, surrounded by grieving family members, but that's not the case for everyone.

Worcester Funeral Director Peter Stefan is at the forefront of a growing problem; burying hundreds of people who die every year, with no family and no money.

They're referred to as "unclaimed," a label for someone who dies without family, or whose family waives any claim to them. Unclaimed bodies are treated as "indigent," someone who died in poverty.

Over the past year alone, Stefan told the I-Team he has buried between 40 to 50 unclaimed bodies. "I've had nine here in the past week and a half, and I have another one today they called me on, plus this woman we picked up yesterday. No money, no family."

The Office of the Medical Examiner must hold unclaimed bodies until they find a funeral director willing to pick them up. If the office can't identify a body, can't find next of kin, or the next of kin waives all claim to the body, they then turn it over to the Department of Transitional Assistance.

According to data the I-Team obtained from the Department of Public Safety, the Office of the Medical Examiner referred 78 unclaimed bodies to the DTA in 2017, 72 in 2016, 79 in 2015, and 85 in 2014.

Stefan said that DTA reimburses funeral directors $1,100 for indigent burials, but in order to qualify for the reimbursement, they can't spend more than $3,500, which barely covers the cost of a basic burial. A family's assets are also counted against that cap. "When it comes to a death, it becomes a money issue, and the funeral directors are slowly but surely backing off, not going to do them, now what are you doing to do?"

Senate President Harriette Chandler is familiar with the issue, and has been working to make changes for years. "Our concern is the fact that it costs approximately up to $3,000 to bury a body, and if you're indigent, nobody is going to pay for that $3,000, however, if you're indigent, you would be able to be cremated for $500."

Cremation is a much cheaper option, but under state law, it requires a signature from next of kin. If a funeral director picks up an unclaimed body and can't find the next of kin, they can either pay for the burial with the money provided by the state, and absorb the rest of the cost, or store the body in a refrigerated space, in hopes that a family member will eventually turn up.

Senate President Chandler proposed a budget amendment last year to increase reimbursements for indigent burials, and allow funeral directors to cremate unclaimed bodies under certain circumstances. The measure was vetoed by Governor Baker.

Senate President Chandler told the I-Team, the issue needs to be addressed. "We can't just turn our head and be in denial, stick our heads in the sand and say, this isn't my problem, it's all of our problem."

Governor Baker sent the I-Team the following statement about vetoing the measure.

"The Baker-Polito Administration was pleased to propose a balanced budget, including a new policy at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner that reduced the number of unclaimed bodies awaiting burial by increasing compensation to funeral homes."

Department of Public Safety spokesperson Felix Browne told the I-Team, the Department of Transitional Assistance started an incentive program in January of 2016. Under the program, funeral directors are given an additional $1,000 on top of the $1,100 that DTA provides to remove unclaimed bodies from the Medical Examiner's Office.

Browne said prior the program, bodies were left at the Office of the Medical Examiner morgue for an average of 43.9 days. After the program started, the average length of time from request to removal from the morgue decreased to 8.8 days.

Still, Stefan told the I-Team the average burial costs at least $3,000, so while the additional $1,000 may help, it still may not be enough to entice other funeral directors to pick up unclaimed bodies.

Unclaimed bodies referred to DTA:

2014 - 85
2015 - 79
2016 - 72
2017 - 78

(These are the numbers of unclaimed bodies that the Medical Examiner's Office referred to the Department of Transitional Assistance. The numbers do not reflect the combined indigent burials that have gone through DTA.)

Per Felix Browne, Department of Public Safety


Total Indigent Burials in Massachusetts

2014= 3,519
2015= 3,923
2016= 5,218
2017= 4,553 (As of 12/18/17)

-Per Elissa Snook, Department of Public Health

Length of time indigent bodies remained in morgues:

Jan. 2016 - 22 bodies, average stay 37 days
Feb. 2016 - 2 bodies, average stay 61 days
March 2016 - 6 bodies, average stay 18 days
April 2016 -3 bodies, average stay 19 days
May 2016 - 5 bodies, average stay 25 days
June 2016 - 4 bodies, average stay 10 days
July 2016 - 6 bodies, average stay 14 days
August 2016 - 8 bodies, average stay 10 days
September 2016 - 9 bodies, average stay 3 days
October 2016 - 10 bodies, average stay 3 days
November 2016 - 9 bodies, average stay 8 days
January 2017 - 5 bodies, average stay 3 days
February 2017 - 10 bodies, average stay 7 days
March 2017 - 6 bodies, average stay 6 days
April 2017 - 4 bodies, average stay 4 days
May 2017 - 12 bodies, average stay 6 days
June 2017 -9 bodies, average stay 6 days
July 2017 -5 bodies, average stay 5 days
August 2017 -8 bodies, average stay 8 days
Sept. 2017 -7 bodies, average stay 4 days
Oct. 2017 -9 bodies, average stay 9 days

1/15/16 - Date new system put in place to shorten period of time bodies are left at the morgue.

-Per Felix Browne, Department of Public Safety

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