Some bodies go unclaimed at Coroner's Office

July 25, 2006

Reported by Libby White

Once a John or Jane Doe is identified at a coroner's office, it doesn't mean they'll be laid to rest with ease. Zeb Johnson with the Calcasieu Parish Coroner's Office says a lot of the time, families won't claim the body. "They haven't seen them in years and they don't want to pay for funeral expenses," explains Johnson. "They're not able to pay for funeral expenses and there are a lot of reasons they don't want the bodies back." There's no law requiring a family member to ever claim the body for burial.

Because of space constraints, the coroner's office can only hold the body for so long. So what happens next? "We end up having to, or Calcasieu Parish ends up having to bury those bodies and a lot of times cremate them because it's economically more feasible," said Johnson. Meaning taxpayers are paying to bury someone else's loved one. Johnson says the coroner's office used to do a lot of unclaimed body burials. They would even have a priest come to the graveside for the burial, but some people began taking advantage of the situation. "We had families that would claim it was an unclaimed body and they weren't going to bury it. So we would take the body and bury it. We'd have 150 people show up for the service when we'd bury them."

While some unclaimed bodies may wind up six feet under, there's no marker or headstone to show it. With cemetery burials costing a minimum $2,000, Johnson says the parish is using cremation (a cheaper alternative) more often. He said, "We're pretty reluctant to cremate a body because just as soon as you cremate a body, a family member is going to show up to claim the body."

Johnson says they do everything they can to get families to claim and bury the bodies. Once a person is cremated, they keep the remains for about five years incase a family member should show up. In some homicide cases, the coroner's office will have to bury an unclaimed body - instead of cremating it - because they may have to exhume it later on.