That has left cash-poor cities like Detroit to scatter remains in haphazard ways. Shortly after the financial crisis, according to Krebs, the county medical examiner stashed unclaimed bodies in a refrigerated semitrailer in a back parking lot, a last resort usually reserved for disasters like Hurricane Maria. Two funeral homes the City contracted with are currently under investigation after some bodies were found unburied. When unclaimed bodies are in fact buried, Krebs says, the process is cheap and unglamorous: In some cases, cemetery workers have “dug a trench and lined up body bags.”
Other cities have similarly drawn ire over their burial of the unclaimed. In 2015, Washington, D.C., discovered that, in some cases, the funeral home that the City paid to bury its unclaimed bodies had simply dumped the remains in unmarked graves beside trash cans. (The funeral home claimed that it followed the terms of its contract.)
Placing even more strain on medical examiners is the fact that a centuries-old method for clearing out unclaimed bodies—donating them to medical schools—is often no longer viable. Many states have long relied on donations, a tradition that surfaced in the 19th century following a series of riots against the then-common practice of robbing graves to supply bodies for anatomy research. The resulting Anatomy Acts, which passed in many U.S. states in 1831 and 1832, allowed medical schools to dissect “unclaimed bodies.” But as the historian Michael Sappol has written, many of these bodies were simply people who couldn’t afford burials. New York banned unclaimed-body donations in 2016 after an outcry, and even in states where handing over unclaimed bodies is legal, many medical schools now refuse to take them.
All this means that solutions for managing the dead are getting weirder and more controversial—though not necessarily worse. While Tennessee gives some unclaimed cadavers to “body farms” where researchers study decomposition, New York has buried more than 1 million unclaimed bodies on its inaccessible Hart Island, a 100-acre strip of land north of Manhattan. States such as North Carolina cremate unclaimed remains and scatter them at sea. Dallas, which is also overrun with unclaimed bodies, briefly debated liquefying remains through an environmentally friendly process known as alkaline hydrolysis. That initiative failed after lawmakers expressed revulsion for the technique, which reduces human bodies to a brownish liquid and a set of bones.
Read: How to be eco-friendly when you’re dead
In the meantime, some people are attempting to limit the number of bodies that go unclaimed in the first place. NamUs, a federal missing-persons database that has recently expanded to include unclaimed bodies, for instance, is attempting to make it easier for medical examiners to match unclaimed remains to missing persons. According to NamUs’s communication and case-management director, J. Todd Matthews, unclaimed bodies are often reported missing in a state other than where they actually died, but medical examiners don’t have direct access to the National Crime Information Center’s missing-person database. NamUs hopes its own database can provide an alternative search tool when medical examiners wind up with bodies whose family they can’t locate.