The Unidentified Dead in America

What happens once you’re dead?

Following the death of a loved one, the surviving family members often partake in typical funerary practices which are specific to their religion and culture, in a way of remembrance and respect for the deceased. Common practices in the United States include visitations, funeral services, memorial services, burial services, and family gatherings.[1] All of the mentioned practices can be tailored to fit the specific requests and requirements of the family. What happens to the deceased who are abandoned, unidentified, forgotten, or alone? What about victims of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or those killed in rural areas with little to no regulations on what should be done with those who are unidentified and deceased? It is quite clear that the actions and practices of the unidentified deceased differ drastically from traditional funerary practices. Many ethical questions arise when determining how to properly treat, identify, and provide closure for the deceased who are unidentified. The complexity of this situation is intensified when considering the disconnect of information shared between state and local officials looking to solve such cases.

Traditional Funeral Service.

The Crisis of the Unidentified

Many believe that the vast number of missing persons and unidentified human remains in the United States should be viewed as a crisis, yet many experts consider it “a mass disaster over time.”[2] This mentality is not conducive to answers, nor a solution to the problem of what should be done with those who are unable to be identified. Currently, “It is estimated that 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year, with approximately 1,000 of those bodies remaining unidentified after one year.”[3] For every 4,400 bodies, about 25% remain unidentified after one year, and 14% are buried or cremated.[4] Although there is a database in which these bodies should be entered into in order to help solve missing persons cases, over half of coroner’s offices do not have policies for keeping the information about these unidentified bodies, although this could yield useful information. In fact, many bodies are cremated or buried before being identified, and without the important records like dental or DNA, there is no way these bodies will ever be identified.[5] Furthermore, it was estimated in 1993 that nationwide, only 1.91% of dental records accompany missing person entries. This shocking statistic highlights how little information or records were kept of the unidentified dead, and for some, it causes them to remain unidentified forever.[6] As time and technology have progressed, this statistic has risen, but it is not yet at a percentage that accounts for the majority of the unidentified. This dismal reality is felt heavily by the surviving family members of the unidentified deceased. Plagued with questions and no answers, the search for a definitive answer about the whereabouts and condition of their loved ones can seem complex, if not impossible.

There are over 40,000 bodies in America that are held in evidence rooms because they cannot be identified, but only about 6,000 of those remains have actually been entered into the National Crime Information Center database.[7] This makes the process of identifying human remains and solving cases much harder because cities and counties continue to bury unidentified bodies without trying to collect DNA samples and other forms of evidence first.[8] If there were DNA samples collected, or some sort of photographs or personal belongings collected for every unclaimed body, many of cases that went cold could be solved and it could also eliminate the gap between missing person reports and the amount of bodies actually claimed. In South Dakota in 1981, a newborn baby was found dead in a ditch, but the baby was not reported missing so the case went cold.[9] Eventually, the baby was buried in a local cemetery, until almost forty years later, the mother was found. Through DNA testing and genealogy databases, they were able to identify the mother, arrest her, and charge her with murder.[10] This is just one example of how helpful DNA sampling and databases can be if they are used correctly. In comparison to countries like America and Italy, some countries are not fortunate enough to have that kind of system and they have to handle similar situations very differently.

In Italy, the identification process of unclaimed bodies is very difficult as there are no standards set for how to identify an unknown body.[11] The Italy Code of Criminal Procedure states that if there is suspicion of a crime from the death of a person then the prosecutor will verify the cause of death after they take the necessary precautions to try to identify the body.[12] The problem with this is that only the procurator deals with the body, and if the person is not the victim of a crime then the magistrate is not interested in identifying the body, nor do they make the efforts to do so.[13] On the other hand, all unidentified bodies must be photographed and documented along with any personal belongings found with them.[14] However, this is not always helpful because there is no national database of unidentified bodies to crossmatch with the database of missing person reports.[15] Many other countries operate on a system similar to that of Italy, and they also experience a lot of the same problems. America is one of those countries, and although it has a better mechanism for identifying bodies, there are still a lot of discrepancies that need to be fixed.

What is being done to help bring closure to families of those presumed dead?

Currently, there are several organizations which are working to help resolve and lessen the burden of this crisis. is an organization that provides services, technology and information to help resolve closed or cold cases in the United States. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, NamUs is free of charge, and empowers loved ones to use resources such as these to search for their missing or deceased relative. By entering information such as age, gender, and state and county, relatives are able to search and filter through the online database that includes missing, unidentified, and unclaimed persons.[16]

Image from ViCAP of a reconstruction done to help find identity of body.

The websites that are used often show pictures of the personal items found with the bodies, or a reconstruction of the person’s face so that families can look and maybe help speed the process up of identifying who the cadaver really is. When a family calls in and reports that one of the bodies could be one of their loved ones, the dental sculptures and information are taken from the body and compared to those of the missing person, and if they’re a match, then that body finally has an identity. Another website used to help identify the unidentified deceased can be found through the FBI, in a program called ViCAP Unidentified Persons. This website uses strategies similar to those of NamUs, uploading reconstructed pictures of the deceased as well as a short report of their known or studied condition post mortem.[17] Thanks to technological advancements and DNA and dental/bone records being used to identify people, there is now a much higher chance of a body being identified than there was 20 years ago, when it was expected that people could identify a body based off of a picture. However in older cases, DNA could prove useless if there are no family members to base the DNA off of. Even with technology advancing as far as it has, there’s still a possibility that a person may go unidentified. But every day, people see a small glimpse of hope that a body may be identified, and still use sites like NamUs in hopes of being able to reunite someone’s identity with their body, and to bring comfort to those who never knew where their loved ones went.

Example of unidentified body, and usage of personal items (tattoos) to identify body.

What is done with the remains of the unidentified dead?

Historically, state-funded funerals resulted in the burial of the unidentified deceased or homeless into a potter’s fields. The term originates from the Gospel of Matthew, part of the New Testament, when the high priests of Jerusalem paid for a burial place for strangers and the poor.[18] As the funeral and burial is paid for by the state, they are more than likely looking for the total to incur the least expense, resulting in shallow graves, basic coffins, and the cheapest possible marker, if there is a marker at all. Throughout the twentieth century, most cities switched from burying their dead in potter’s fields to cremation. Today, nearly every city in the U.S. cremates unclaimed people.[19] This practice is the least costly and cleanly disposes of the remains of the unidentified. About 15 states provide some funding for unclaimed body burials or cremations, while the rest have pushed the cost to local governments. After cremation, every city has different rules for how it handles remains. Los Angeles County stores them for three years and buries them in a mass grave if they go unclaimed.[20] As the importance of ethics in care and treatment of the unidentified dead has increased, many strategies and goals have been created in order to assist in the process of locating a deceased relative or loved one. For example, at the potter’s field in New York City, the Hart Island Project strives to create a map and listing of the 67,004 people buried there since 1980.[21]

Potter’s Field Grave Marker.

How do you determine the cause of death in an unknown scenario?

In cases of mass disasters or tragedies, unidentified bodies come to the forefront of concern. In cases such as mass disaster, Medico-Legal Autopsies are conducted to find the cause and manner of death, as well as to identify the subject or descendant. They are also conducted in all cases of unnatural deaths and unidentified bodies.[22] Typically, they are performed under cases of violent, suspicious, or sudden deaths, as prescribed by the applicable law. “As a dictum, all unattended, undiagnosed, unidentified and unnatural deaths are considered as medico legal.”[23] This being said, it is of little importance to perform autopsies on unidentified bodies throughout a regular year.

In January 2010 in Haiti, there was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that destroyed the region, its buildings, and killed many people.[24] Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, meaning they did not have adequate funding to bury all of the remaining bodies which resulted from the earthquake. One man reported that he knew his wife’s body was inside one of the collapsed buildings, which led him to ask authorities what they were going to do with all of the bodies remaining inside the wreckage, and to his dismay, their response was that they could not do anything.[25] The bodies that were initially able to be extracted from buildings were placed in piles on the streets in front of the collapsed buildings; one person reported “25 bodies in a space of 5m” in front of a building.[26] For the bodies that were never identified from the earthquake, they were placed in a cemetery and a voodoo ceremony was performed over the bodies to “free the spirits.”[27] For most of the other unidentified bodies, they did not try to identify them because they saw it as too much of a complicated task to complete.[28] This shows how different countries may be forced to treat human remains differently than they would like because of lack of funding and institutions. Money plays an important role in the rituals a culture may have, especially during mass casualties when there is a lot of damage to tend to. Other cultures may have to face the challenges of their traditions clashing with the duties of law enforcement.

Often times, cultures and their traditions for dealing with the deceased may conflict with laws and federal investigations if one is necessary. For example, there was a recent shooting in a New Zealand mosque, which is where Muslims practice their religion.[29] It is a tradition for Muslims to bury their loved ones within a few days, but because the shooting was a mass casualty and there was a crime scene, there needed to be a federal investigation of the scene. This conflicted with the traditions of Muslims because a federal investigation takes a lot longer than a few days, causing a lot of controversy about what to do with the bodies. In incidents such as these, it makes it hard for both sides to do what they need to do, and it also demonstrates how even if there isn’t a problem financially, there can be moral problems that arise with death and burial.

As time progresses and advances are made in science and technology, as well as ethical standards, there is great hope for new measures being created to help identify and return the unidentified deceased to their loved ones. This cannot be done without major changes being made to the legal system, as well as an increased amount of communication between state and local officials. Currently, there are organizations working to identify the deceased and help locate the missing, but further research, coordination, and planning must occur in order to make these resources more efficient and reliable. Due to the greater amounts of technology available today, it is now much easier than it was twenty years ago to record and store important identifying medical features, such as DNA and dental structures, making it easier for people to be able to identify and find their deceased relatives. Moving forward, it is imperative to remember and consider the moral and cultural aspects of treatment for the unidentified dead in order to maintain ethical standards appropriate for all.

By: Hannah Elkins, Kaitlyn Tant, Parian Covington


[1] U.S. Funeral Customs and Traditions- Funeral Traditions: The Funeral Source.

[2] Ritter, Nancy. n.d. “Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.” National Institute of Justice.

[3] “The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).” n.d.

[4] “Unidentified Human Remains: How Many Are There in the U.S.? What Happens to Them?” n.d.

[5] Halber, Deborah. 2016. “How To Identify An Unidentified Body.” How To Identify An Unidentified Body. May 17, 2016.

[6] Haglund, William D. 1993. “The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing and Unidentified Persons System Revisited.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 38 (2).

[7] Ritter.

[8] Ritter.

[9] Hauser, Christine. “A Dead Baby Was Found in a Ditch in 1981.” New York Times, March 2019.

[10] Hauser.

[11] Cattaneo, C., Porta, D., De Angelis, D., Gibelli, D., Poppa, P., Grandi, M. “Unidentified Bodies and Human Remains: An Italian Glimpse through a European Problem.” Forensic Science International 1965, no. 1-3 (February 2010).

[12] Cattaneo.

[13] Cattaneo.

[14] Cattaneo.

[15] Cattaneo.

[16] NamUs.

[17] “ViCAP Unidentified Persons.” 2010. FBI. October 26, 2010.

[18] “Potter’s Field.” 2019. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. March 24, 2019.’s_field.

[19] Solomon, Adina. 2018. “State-Funded Funerals: What Happens to the Unclaimed Dead?” HowStuffWorks. February 22, 2018.

[20] Solomon.

[21] Solomon.

[22] “Unidentified Bodies in Autopsy – A Disaster in Disguise.” 2013. Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences. June 17, 2013.

[23] Kotabagi, R B, S C Charati, and D Jayachandar. 2005. “Clinical Autopsy vs Medicolegal Autopsy.” Medical Journal, Armed Forces India. Elsevier. July 2005.

[24] McEntire, David, Abdul-Akeem Sadiq, and Kailash Gupta. “Unidentified Bodies and Mass-Fatality Management in Haiti.” ScholarWorks. November 2012.

[25] McEntire.

[26] McEntire.

[27] McEntire.

[28] McEntire.

[29] George, Steve, Josh Berlinger, Hilary Whiteman, Harmeet Kaur, Ben Westscott, and Meg Wagner. 2019. CNN. March 19.


  1. Overall, I thought your post was well-written and thought provoking. I had not considered the concept of the “missing person” beyond the poster and to discover the crisis of the unidentified dead in the US was shocking. What was particularly shocking to me was how each case is not equally evaluated with some receiving more information and interest while others are buried without a second thought. This obviously comes down to resources and cultural practices which your post covered very well.
    I think how the US’s standard method of burial and eventual cremation of the unidentified dead makes sense as there is not much time before a body is rendered useless by decay. However, if the state was interested in having the least expensive burials, green burials would be a better choice than cremation as the fuel use can be more expensive than an entire green burial. Furthermore, most green burials use natural markers such as trees or flowers so there would less cost involved in the case of a grave marker as well.
    In terms of ethics, I wonder if it is ethical to rid the cremated remains of an unidentified deceased person if there is a chance their case could be solved, as seen in the case with the deceased infant found in a ditch only to have the mother arrested and convicted 40 years later. You discussed different procedures each state has for the cremated remains, but perhaps there could be a system similar to the potter’s field in NY in which the deceased spread there could be listed.
    Great job on the posts!

  2. This was a very well-written, well-constructed article. The use of specific examples in your explanations were great, because they brought out the human element of this issue well. I especially liked that you included specific organizations that work to identify the unidentified dead. The case you mentioned the Haitian earthquake was a good detail, too. America’s own federal government doesn’t have a great process for disposing of the dead en mass, either; often, private funeral directors from the surrounding areas are contacted, although they don’t necessarily have the best training for dealing with the precise situation at hand.
    I do, however, wonder about your conclusion that major legal changes must be made to rectify the situation. You have also explained that identification is getting much easier with genetic testing, and, while I can see why more federal/state government communication, and perhaps new governmental institutions dedicated to identification of the dead, would be essential for improving identification rates, I am not sure how legislation would help.

  3. It is amazing to me that in one of the most developed countries in the world, we are still not able to identify all of our deceased. The fact that dental recordings were only made in 1.9% of deaths as recently as 1993 is an abomination.

    One thing that did surprise me, although I had never really thought about it, is that states and local governments pay for the disposal of unclaimed bodies. I suppose the bodies do have to go somewhere, but I never realized that the governments of cities and states were the ones responsible to pay for it.

    I also found the portion about Haiti to be very interesting, and it alerted me to how serious of an issue unidentified bodies are in the United States. While Haiti certainly has a more severe issue with unidentified remains, it is truly unfortunate to see that the U.S. is dealing with the same issues that a third world country is, albeit, in much lower quantities.

    I’d be fascinated to learn more about tragedies in the United States and how the local governments handled those. Such as in 9/11, was every body identified and claimed? Are there any comparable events in the U.S. where bodies were not able to be identified, and what happened to them?

  4. Gabrielle Geiger

    April 24, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    Great Post! This is a really interesting topic and I really appreciated how informative your post was. I cannot believe that with 4,400 there are still 1,000 of those bodies remaining unidentified after one year. Additionally how every 4,400 bodies, about 25% remain unidentified after one year. I cannot imagine how hard this is for the 25% loved ones of the deceased. I liked how you included current methods of identifying remains and what they do with unidentified remains, but it would have been interesting to hear your personal take on what you think would be a better way to increase number of remaining identified deceased.

  5. This post was very informative and highlighted an often overlooked issue. It is hard to believe that even after a year there are still 1000 bodies that remain unidentified. At first I was shocked to read about the Potter’s fields and cremation and mass burial. It seemed a bit harsh, however, reading about other cultures highlighted that the way the unidentified are treated in America is much better than places with less money. I think that your call for legislation is necessary and I wonder if this issue could be remedied with legislation that standardizes how the unidentified are treated nationally instead of local variations. I think that since it is the taxpayers money they should be able to decide what they want to happen with unidentified bodies. Though I think it is also crucial to try to respect the cultural and religious aspects of burial even if the dead is unidentified. It is great that technology is used for good in helping to identify missing family members. Throughout the website it is apparent that the role of technology is shifting as it is used for eulogies and announcing death and as seen here even in identifying the dead.

  6. Great post! I never realized that there are so many unidentified bodies each year, and many of these are buried or cremated with out taking DNA samples. Out of the 25% of bodies that are not identified after one year, 14% of these are buried or cremated. Although I realize that the bodies have to be disposed eventually, I can’t help but to think about the families of these individuals. Most likely, they will never know what happened to their daughter, son, mother, father, etc. A loss is devastating no matter what, but the grief they have to cope with is unimaginable. America is such a developed country, and I believe that we should have a better policy for this complex issue. Perhaps collecting a DNA sample from each individual and putting it into a database? This may cost money, but it is an investment to make for the many unsolved cold cases that still remain.

  7. This post was very well written! I think it’s sometimes hard to really comprehend the full extent of how many unidentified people and cases are still unresolved. Why many of us encounter death, it is usually the death of someone we know and love, and reading this article just put it in perspective how many people don’t actually get that, and how many families are grieving over someone who has not been found or identified. The statistics included were very informative, and really worked to highlight just how extensive this issue is. I hadn’t thought much about what happens to someone who is not identified, and I just found it unsettling that they are usually cremated and could potentially be “dumped” into a grave with many others, and forgotten. I also found it very interesting that there are so many databases with missing persons just open to anyone online, yet many things like DNA or dental records aren’t as prominent. I think this just goes to show the need for improvement of the system, as you all stated in your post. I argued for the same thing, with regards to the Medicolegal Death System, which you all also touched on in the post. When writing my post, my pod focused more on the aspect of investigations with focus on criminal justice and those who had already been identified, but I thought it was very insightful that the system was mentioned pertaining to investigations of unidentified persons who suffered violent deaths. I think this serves as a good connection between our posts and definitely highlights the many interdependent issues within the systems.

  8. I really enjoyed this post, and the topic is one that is overlooked by far too many including myself. I find it interesting how it is a crisis but a crisis that has no clear villain. There are many questions that come up with this, and many of them are unanswerable such as: who were these people, how do we treat them with respect even though we don’t know who they are, and how do we lessen this crisis. I certainly agree there needs to be more policy in place so that it is not as gray of an area and we can make progress in this area. I found the inclusion of Matthew a striking point about how deeply religion is tied into ways we do things in the modern era. I’d love to hear more about this topic, and this class was such a great way to discuss overlooked things such as this.

  9. First, I’d like to say that this post was very well written and compelling! I really liked your inclusion of an acknowledgement of a disconnect between state and local officials, as I think it speaks to a layer of complexity that many people do not realize is present in law enforcement, forensic work, and the like. Your post says that thousands of unidentified bodies are uncovered in the United States every year, but it would be interesting to see more information on this. Where and under what circumstances are these bodies being found? Are specific genders, races, age groups, etc. more represented than others? Your discussion on the use of DNA databases in the search for identities (and, sometimes, justice) was interesting wen considering the post titled “The Forgotten, Unidentified, and Abandoned Dead,” which argues that the use of DNA in this kind of work can sometimes be considered unethical given a dead body’s inability to provide consent, and the different entanglements this produces. Your post also reminded me of some of the things my own pod talked about in our post concerning the embodied effects of not knowing if your loved one is dead or alive, or not having any sort of closure to answer these questions.

  10. I have never really thought about what happens to those who pass away and don’t have a family hence why I was interested in reading this post. I wanted to do some additional digging on what other locations in the world do with their unclaimed bodies. Some interesting things that I came across are that under Ontario’s Anatomy Act, a body is considered “unclaimed” if no friends or family come forward within 24 hours of death and it will not be used for tissue and organ donations. Similarly, like America, the unidentified remains eventually become the responsibility of the municipality to bury.  Another interesting thing that caught my attention was that according to an annual report published by the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, a total of 281 bodies went unclaimed in 2014 and of those, 150 were buried in Toronto. I wondered what happened to the other 131 bodies? Maybe they were cremated or still sitting in the morgue.

  11. Unidentified bodies is a topic that I had not previously thought much about at all. I was very shocked to read the statistics you provided on the large number of unidentified bodies that are found each year. I would have loved to see more demographic information on the individuals’ sex, age, race, or what states those individuals are from. I found some of the sentiments towards the treatment of unidentified bodies (and the frustrations on how well the state treats them) to be quite similar to sentiments towards the care of organ donors because of the frustrations that the care received is better once their dead or in possession of the state. Overall this was a great post and I think that these unidentified bodies deserve more media attention for the aid in grief for the families.

  12. This is a very enlightening post about how so many deaths are undocumented or forgotten. I think it is incredibly interesting the different ways that DNA technology can be used to identify human beings and (hopefully) return them to their families. However, it is incredibly sad about the people that are lost and can never be returned. One question I have is in regards to the bodies of the people that cannot be identified. Are there any policies in place to donate these bodies toward science? Or do these dead bodies have a right to automatic burial if they do not give their consent? How about recently dead individuals that cannot be identified in regard to organ donation? Can they be used or is the time that passes between identification and transplantation too large? It would be interesting to have a policy in place regarding this, especially when many lives are lost due to lack of organ donation.

  13. Something that stood out to me throughout this post was the disparity between the number of unidentified bodies and the manpower, the resources, and the infrastructural norms available to identify them. The fact that “over half of coroners offices do not have policies about keeping the information about these unidentified bodies” is concerning. It is similarly concerning that such an occurrence has not been effectively addressed by federal or local legislature. I agree that more stringent policies and increased communication between state and local officials are where we should start to address this issue. However, I think that another route to solving this problem could be in the privatization of certain processes in body identification. The government works slowly, but private companies are driven by the market to deliver results quickly. There are obvious issues, both ethical and practical, that arise from this route, however, given the fact that some private-company-collected DNA data has been able to help identify criminals in ongoing investigations (i.e. Golden State Killer), it is not totally unreasonable to expand into body identification.

  14. Thank you for writing this post! It has helped me better understand the phenomenon of unidentified bodies in America. Though it may be difficult to identify bodies, especially those involved in natural disasters, every effort should be made in order to best serve the families of the deceased.
    Regarding the burial of the unidentified dead, since it may be difficult to know their identities, it follows that their wishes regarding burial may not be considered.

  15. This post is shocking to me. I had never thought about this. I thought that in America, we are able to identify the dead because the government keeps records of everyone, through a variety of methods such as DNA testing, fingerprinting, and facial recognition.

    To me, it’s incredible that 40,000 bodies in America remain unidentified, and a mere fraction — 6,000 — of those bodies have been entered into a government database.

    I like how you tied a relatively recent event in your post. It’s interesting how culture will influence funeral practices: in America, many people would dismiss voodoo ceremonies as “inferior” or “nonsense” but in Haiti, it is how people honor the deceased. I found it sad that many people who died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake were left unidentified simply because there were not enough resources.

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