Forgotten in death or abandoned by their loved ones, unclaimed bodies are piling up in the Calcasieu Parish morgue. Their remains sit silently as investigators work to bring them to a final resting place.
Space is tight in the supply closets at the Calcasieu Parish Coroner's Office in Lake Charles. "These are several cremated remains that have stayed here in our office that we have accumulated over the years," said investigator Charles Hunter, as he reorganized the spaces that hold boxes of remains.
Hunter and chief investigator Zeb Johnson are squeezing the remains of unclaimed bodies into every nook and cranny of their small building, that is becoming increasingly more crowded with both unidentified and unclaimed bodies. "We could have as many as 10 a year," said Johnson, "we have a couple of bodies now that are unclaimed in this year and we have a lot of bodies from the last several years that are still unclaimed."
A tough economy is blamed for many families leaving the bodies because of expenses. "We're a repository for all of these bodies," said Johnson, "on any given day, we might have four or five bodies from different funeral homes that we're literally holding, waiting for somebody to make a decision."
It is the unidentified bodies that keep investigators chasing down every lead - to discover who these people are and if anyone is searching for them. "You just really have to believe that somebody out there is looking for this individual, they're not alone, they have siblings or parents or grandparents," said Johnson.
Bodies are immediately brought to a holding area to undergo the identification process, then moved into a short-term refrigerator for a maximum of 30 days before they are moved on to the decomposition area. "At times, it's overwhelming for us because we do have so many unclaimed bodies here, but we don't like to ever give up," said Hunter.
The garage area houses the long-term refrigerator for bodies and a two body freezer, where one body has sat frozen for eight months. "We have two right now in the decomp area," said Johnson, "and we also have two in the freezer unit. We'll keep them there as long as we possibly can, because that just allows us another space to store them and we're able to control some of the decomposition."
The standard holding time is three months, before the staff makes the decision to cremate the remains or bury them - something that can cost between $1,000-$4,000. "If we believe that the body has the potential to be identified, or it might yield us some more information in the future, then we'll shy away from the cremation process and opt for the burial process," said Johnson.
In spite of the circumstances that led to each person's death, Johnson and Hunter say it is their calling to provide a final service and prayer, showing that someone does care who they are and that they are gone. "We have a responsibility to the person who's dead and that they have a decent burial and that their life means something," said Johnson.
Because Johnson owns the area's only crematory, he cannot charge the parish for cremations due to a conflict of interest. His funeral home has more than 30 unclaimed remains.
Thursday night on Nightcast, we will show you the steps investigators take to identify people and find their families.
Click here to access the NaMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Click here to access CODIS, the FBI system for comparing DNA.
You can read and watch the second part of this series, "Identifying and bringing unclaimed bodies to final resting place," by clicking here.