Dead and unclaimed: Sacramento County experiences 140 percent jump in abandoned bodies
‘I don’t know why people are abandoning their loved ones all of a sudden.’
A sharp rise in unclaimed dead bodies is mystifying Sacramento County officials and taxing the fund that pays for indigent burials.
The Coroner’s Office has witnessed a 120 percent increase in “abandoned” human remains between 2015 and last calendar year, when 55 bodies went unclaimed by their relatives. The problem is only getting worse, too. As of December 1, the Coroner’s Office held 60 unclaimed bodies—a 9 percent increase over 2016 with still a month left to go.
“I don’t know why people are abandoning their loved ones all of a sudden,” said Coroner Kimberly Gin. “It’s kind of a mystery to me, too. If we could figure it out a little more, maybe we could help the families. But I don’t know that we ever will.”
Gin explained that this is not a case where the Coroner’s Office has been unable to locate surviving relatives. It’s that the family members, for whatever reason, are not accepting their loved ones’ remains.
Statutes in state law make next of kin financially responsible for disposing of their relatives remains, unless they lack resources to do so. In such cases, most counties have indigent burial programs like the one in Sacramento County.
Gin said affordability may be part of the problem here, but couldn’t say to what extent. Once surviving family members are identified, they are sent forms by registered mail with which they can notify the Coroner’s Office what they want done with the remains and apply for the indigent burial program if they fall under certain income thresholds.
But Gin says that the surviving relatives are not sending back the forms and, in some cases, are telling Coroner’s Office employees to stop bothering them.
“Some of them don’t tell us anything. Some of them say they can’t afford it,” Gin added. “It’s all over the map, or we don’t know at all.”
The Coroner’s Office considers a body abandoned if the decedent’s next of kin doesn’t respond in 30 days, Gin explained. She said she’s extended that deadline for families that need more time to get their affairs in order. State statute requires coroners to conduct indigent burials for abandoned bodies, which is taxing the Sacramento County office’s budget.
On December 5, the Board of Supervisors approved a funding request for $450,000 more to cover this year’s indigent burials—more than twice the $300,000 the office originally budgeted to inter the remains of unclaimed county residents. The Coroner’s Office is adjusting protocols and services related to how it conducts autopsies to offset some of the increased costs.
Through its contract with Statewide Mortuary Transport and Support, Inc., the Coroner’s Office pays a discounted rate of less than $300 per cremation and interment, and roughly $120 to transport each decedent, SN&R’s analysis of the funding request shows. Gin says bodies in the indigent burial program are cremated and their ashes are either returned to their loved ones or scattered at sea if no one claims them.
Overall, the coroner’s vendor cremated 369 bodies that were either deemed indigent or abandoned by relatives in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and transported “865 decedents from the scene of death to the Coroner’s facility,” the funding request states.
Two homeless advocates said they weren’t necessarily surprised that people are leaving more of their departed family members in coroner custody, given blistering rises in rental prices and homelessness around Sacramento.
Citing an overnight survey earlier this year that found homelessness increased 85 percent between 2015 and 2017, Loaves & Fishes program director Joan Burke called it “a sad but logical consequence that there would be a rise in indigent burials.”
Then there are the exorbitant costs associated with burying or interring loved ones. Even relatives who may want to avoid a Cadillac send-off can’t avoid certain baseline expenses if they want any say in officiating their goodbye.
According to Parting, a funeral industry website, the lowest price in the Sacramento region is $615 for a direct cremation. A direct cremation occurs shortly after death without embalming and doesn’t involve a viewing, says Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California & Surrounding Areas. The cost doesn’t include ones associated with obtaining death certificates, paying for obituaries or death notices, urns, or organizing celebrations of life.
Meanwhile, there are other sobering markers that Sacramento is experiencing an intensifying overlap in poverty and mortality.
At an annual interfaith memorial to honor homeless Sacramento County residents who died this year, 112 names were read, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. By comparison, 71 homeless people died in Sacramento County the year before.
While many may not get their own plots or gravestones engraved with loving epitaphs, there is one place their names will be recorded, Burke said in an email.
“We inscribe the names of those homeless people who were part of Loaves & Fishes on our Memorial Wall because we believe that each life has value and we should remember that each person lived and should be remembered,” she wrote.