The obituaries that never get written

Chain gangs burying another unknown person in White Tanks Cemetery, in the desolate cemetery a half hour west of Phoenix.

“It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.”  Hebrews 9:27

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Nearly every day in the Arizona Republic (Arizona’s flagship newspaper), there appear between 4-6 obituaries with names of people who died but whose body has not been claimed. The obituaries say the Maricopa County Indigent Decedent services is looking for any individual who may have information about this person. With each obituary, the Maricopa County office number is listed.

The short death notices catch me up short. So I decided to call the number and asked about the process. The lady who answered was kind and talkative. She said as of this last week in February, her office is working on 54 cases of unclaimed bodies in Maricopa county, the largest county in the state and the county in which metro-Phoenix – population 4 million – is located.  

“I got a call from the county coroner’s office already this morning with 2 new names,” she said.

“54 current cases of unclaimed bodies,” I said.

“54,” she answered. “Often it is higher.”

Most of the time the obituary in the paper has a name, an age and the place of death, meaning that the person who died had some identification. When I asked the woman how often the identified bodies are claimed, her voiced dropped. “Not very often,” she said.

“Half of the time?”

“Less. About a third of the time.”

“That’s really sad.”

“Very,” she said. “When we do connect with a family member, often they say there is nothing they can do and to just go ahead with the cremation and burial. Some don’t even want to talk with us.”

More than half of the obituaries are of people older than 50. The woman explained those with the older ages most likely they are individuals who died in nursing homes, at home or in the hospital.

The Maricopa County Coroner’s office does DNA tests and fingerprints the body before it is cremated. The remains are buried in a cemetery for the indigent in west Phoenix. Different individuals volunteer to give the deceased a proper burial.

I wondered about those obituaries where the ages are from 20-35. In the last 6 weeks, I have seen 3 or 4 obituaries every week of people who didn’t make it to age 35. “Often those are people who die on the streets,” the woman explained. (This winter the city of Phoenix officials estimate there are more than 25,000 homeless individuals in the metro-Phoenix area of more than four million.) “A lot of those deaths are from an overdose.”

“And no one claims the body? I asked.

“That’s right. Well, sometimes they are claimed.” The woman told me that just a week earlier she received a call from a man in another state who called about a man who died on the streets who did have identification on his person when he died. The man told the woman he somehow heard about it. As he connected the dots, he realized that the man who died is his brother. He told her he thought his brother was in Las Vegas, not Phoenix. But as he put his information together, it became clear it was his brother who died. His brother had been homeless for years, he told her.

“I confirmed his information with the information I had. The men were in fact brothers,” she said. The man who called was okay with his brother’s ashes being buried here in Phoenix. “He said he was relieved that he no longer has to wonder where in the country his brother might be.”

Maricopa County puts simple bronze markers on the spot where the dead are buried in their cemetery for the indigent.

This is a picture I took of a bronze marker in the White Tanks Cemetery, west of Phoenix. Hundreds of graves are here of those who never were claimed, including this unidentified male.

“What’s the hardest part of your job?” I asked.

“Receiving information about those who die with no identification. That’s rare, but it does happen several times a year.”

“No identification?”

“None. We always try to find leads on who the person is, but sometimes there just isn’t anything.”

“You still bury them, right?”

“Oh, of course.”

“How do you mark their grave?

“With a number, date of death and whether the body was male or female.”

“Do you have a service for the individual?”

“We do. Every person deserves a proper burial, whether that person is ever identified or not.”

“God knows.”

“Yes, God knows, and God cares. Do you have any other questions, sir?”

“No, that’s all.”

“Very nice talking with you. Call any time, sir. Have a blessed day.”