The Oregonian has done an excellent article on what happens to dead people when no one claims them for burial, or if they can find no one. It includes profiles of several unclaimed dead who, contrary to popular belief, usually have their identity known, and aren’t always homeless or without family or friends.
Andrew O’Hagan writes a bit about this in The Missing, a book I have a short review of on Charley’s recommended books page. He talked about the sort of lengths the Brits (this is written by a British man, not an American) go to find the next of kin. I guess they have longer than ten days to look, unlike the people in Oregon. I think he wrote about one guy who died in his apartment and he didn’t seem to have any indication whatsoever of anyone close to him, and the investigator looked all over the place and finally found a decades-old address book with a phone number in it that turned out to be still current. It was the dead man’s ex-wife’s sister or something like that. So somebody finally got to be notified he had died, though I doubt the ex-wife and her family were willing to take possession of the body and pay for the funeral. Saddest of all were the cases O’Hagan wrote about where people died and it took months or years for anyone to notice. One woman died, apparently of natural causes, watching TV in her apartment. She lived alone, was retired and apparently had no friends or relatives she was in regular contact with. Her pension checks were direct-deposited into her bank account each week, and her landlord and the electric company and things billed the account electronically, so no one noticed anything amiss for ages.
Getting back to the Oregonian article — I agree with the commenters below the article. It seems like they ought to have longer than ten days to find someone. I understand that med schools need bodies (they used to actually have to rob graves to get them, back in the day, and no one wants the situation to reach that point again) and I understand that the police and coroners and stuff have a lot of demands on their time and can’t spend forever chasing down relatives of a dead person where the case has been closed and everything. But if it were my mom or someone who got donated to a medical school and then cremated because they never found anyone to notify she had died, I would be pretty upset. I also had a case on Charley where a man was listed as missing for like over ten years, when in fact he had died of natural causes in a hospital in the same city around the same time he disappeared, and he was identified, but the coroner’s office forgot to notify his mom, and the police never connected the dots either, and he was years in a potter’s field before anyone realized the mistake. *headdesk* That kind of thing needs to be avoided whenever possible. Deaths in the family are bad enough without those kind of complications.