Category: The Forgotten, Unidentified, and Abandoned Dead

The Forgotten, Unidentified, and Abandoned Dead

The largest ethical concern for identifying dead bodies is retaining the DNA because it is must be protected to ensure the right to privacy. Although it contains information about a person’s family and genetic predisposition to diseases, laws have been adopted for the protection of genetic data. An IRC workshop in 2002 examined national legislation and compiled a set of legal principles concerning the protection of personal and genetic data that must be respected in all circumstances. Some of these principles are as follows: biological samples left by the missing person, either as medical samples or other biological artifacts; the consent of the individual is required for the collection and use of personal data, except if required by a substantial public interest or for the protection of the vital interests of the person concerned; personal data may not be used, disclosed or transferred for purposes other than those for which they were collected without the consent of the person concerned, except if required by a substantial public interest or for the protection of the vital interests of the person concerned. These limitations on the deceased give them autonomy for the use of their DNA after their death, but unfortunately makes it harder to identify (ICRC, 39). The dead no longer make decisions when dead, so the need for consent from the a deceased person should not be a principle in retaining their DNA. They embody a distinct identity in the minds of living, making it even more of a valid reason to use their DNA or a loved one to identify the dead.

The problem with consent for using DNA of the deceased arose when DNA profiles were used to identify bodies in a particular battle from the World War.  250 sets of human remains were excavated from the site from the battle of Fromelles in 2009 and matched with their descendents and relatives who came forward with their DNA profiling (Scully, Woodward). The identification of the dead body unites the deceased with the living one again almost a century later. However, the issue of consent as the unidentified are unable to provide consent. This results in a paradox since they are technically still unidentified before the DNA matching so a relative cannot give consent either. Another issue is that it can create repercussions that could arise from the sharing of the DNA can inadvertently provide information about other members of the family that did not share consent such as traits associated with inherited disease and predispositions to said disease. However, the deceased deserve the dignity to be identified, so it raises ethical concerns on is DNA profiling is a necessary evil to identify the abandoned dead.

Another ethical concern is the problem of neurological emergency services in third world countries identifying bodies. Presented with a case study in India specifically, there is no data on unknown patients or systematic studies on their specific subgroup of unknown patients. In a study done by Umesh, Gowda, Kumar, etc, they investigated the clinical, socio-demographic, and investigational profile of these unknown patients in India. They identified a pattern of the common causes of the admission into neurology finding seizures, metabolic causes, and neuro-infections as the primary reasons. The main issues that come to light from this study is that India lacks an efficient emergency service system since they cannot properly identify the patients that may end up dying. The government must develop mobile emergency units to handle the unknown population as well as a protocol to handle the unknown persons that arrive. It is hard to for third world countries such as India to determine what to do with these unknown subjects since the countries have little resources and education. The following proposed standard operating procedure produced by the authors of the study should be followed by emergency personnel handling unknown patients in third world countries:


Third world countries also have trouble respecting the dignity of individual’s death after natural disasters. A good example of this is the 2010 hurricane in Haiti when the government mishandled the dead. The disorganized handling of the dead can be due to in part by the corrupt politics and unstable government prior to the natural disaster. Many survivors who were related to the victims were resentful towards the recovery teams as they were put into dump trucks and scattered in mass graves with no input from loved ones. It can be particularly emotionally damaging when someone does not know the fate of a loved one (Recovery and Identification of the Missing after Case Studies, 20). The deceased from natural disasters should be identified rather than buried in mass graves. Then, the living can begin the proper coping process and protects the dignity of the deceased. Like the issue with neurology emergency services, third world countries should put policies in place for the handling of the dead after natural disasters. A permanent disaster relief organization should be created to coordinate rescue teams and put identification efforts as a priority to bring relief to the victims (Recovery and Identification of the Missing after Case Studies, 29).

While many different issues may cause a body to be unidentified, there are not many options for identification in such an instance that do not involve invasive procedures. According to The National Association of Medical Examiners’ Forensic Autopsy Performance Standards, autopsy must be performed in the event that a body is discovered and autopsy may help identify the subject. The practice of performing autopsies on unidentified human remains is incredibly common. One study at the Calcutta police morgue in India looked at two thousand five hundred and fifteen autopsies that occurred over a two year period, and found that about 25% were subject to this invasive procedure (Chattopadhyay, Observations).

This creates a dilemma as autopsy runs up against many cultural and religious traditions and practices. Besides Christianity, the three other most common world religions all hold some objection to the performance of autopsy in their religious canon. The Jewish tradition requires the burial of the dead as quickly as possible, with the entirety of the remains intact. This means that autopsy is performed only in rare cases. Israeli law, up until recently, required the consent of the next of kin and three legal officials before the performance of an autopsy, which would notably be impossible in the event of an unidentified body (Parks, 512).

The Islamic tradition similarly forbids the procedure in theory. The Q’uran states that “the breaking of the bone of a dead person is like the breaking of the bone of a living person.” However, some less conservative Muslims allow for autopsy, even in cases not mandated by the courts. In these cases, the consent of the next of kin is needed, in keeping with tradition (Parks, 512).

Hinduism considers autopsies to be “extremely distasteful” (Parks, 512). But these are not the only traditions that reject this proceeding of modern forensic science. Rastafarianism, Greek Orthodoxy, Shintoism, and Zoroastrianism all have religious oppositions to the performance of autopsies.

This presents some legal challenges in nations like the United States, where religious freedom is tantamount. It is a cultural issue wherever it may occur, as respect for religious tradition is a human right – but there has been pushback by the legal system here in the US. In Harris County, Texas, lawmakers are pushing back against religious exemptions to autopsy. Two laws run up against each other in this case – one which requires autopsies to be performed in the event of unknown cause of death, and one that permits families to reject autopsy for religious reasons. This is not quite as relevant to out topic, since in order for a religious exemption to be considered the identity of the deceased must be confirmed, however, in cases where the dead remains unidentified, we may still be violating religious tradition with knowledge.






Jay David Aronson, Alex John London. “Recovery and Identification of the Missing after Disaster: Case Studies, Ethical Guidelines and Policy Recommendations.” (2011): 1-53.

Parks, David G. “Legal Issues: Religious Beliefs and Objection to Autopsies.” Laboratory Medicine, vol. 27, no. 8, Aug. 1996.

Peterson, Liz Austin. “Harris County Challenges Religious Limits on Autopsy.” Houston Chronicle, 2008,

Scully, Jackie Leach, and Rachel Woodward. “Naming the Unknown of Fromelles: DNA Profiling, Ethics and the Identification of First World War Bodies.” Journal of War & Culture Studies5, no. 1 (2012): 59-72.

Yadav, Ravi, Achary Umesh, Gurus Gowda, Channaveeracharinaveen Kumar, Dwarakanath Srinivas, Bharathrose Dawn, Ragasudha Botta, and Sureshbada Math. “Unknown Patients and Neurology Casualty Services in an Indian Metropolitan City: A Decades Experience.” Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology20, no. 2 (June 2017): 109-15.

ICRC. “MISSING PEOPLE, DNA ANALYSIS AND IDENTIFICATION OF HUMAN REMAINS.” A guide to best practice in armed conflicts and other situations of armed violence, second edition, (2009): 1-52.


Death During Migration: Implications for the deceased and for those left behind

Identification of the dead is something that is often taken for granted, if offered any thought at all, in our modern world. However, it is important to note that this process of identification can present unique challenges, particularly for people who exist in “liminal spaces.” One example of such a space is one defined by movement- more specifically, the precarious mode of living embodied by migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees who often exist outside of traditional frameworks of the state and migration processes. Refugee crises are a pressing issue in the public consciousness today, with one example of such a crisis being that of the Mediterranean. While there are obviously a number of questions about how local and global communities can navigate relationships with living migrants, we argue that more consideration should be offered to those who do not complete their journeys. According to a recent report by the International Organization for Migration, there were approximately 3,072 deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean between January and September of 2014.[1] Of these, a large majority remain unidentified. There is a myriad of implications relating to the death of migrants and the challenges that arise when attempting to identify their bodies, which we will explore through multiple angles as a means of presenting the most holistic picture of this issue possible.

To begin, it is important to consider the contexts that caused many of the migrants of the Mediterranean to leave their home countries in the first place. Conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and several parts of North Africa have driven asylum seekers into the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe. One such conflict is the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011 after the Arab Spring garnered support for efforts in the movement towards “democracy.” In response, thousands of demonstrators, civilians, and military defectors who formed the Free Syrian Army were killed under the command of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It is worth noting that international involvement has played a huge role in how the Civil War has progressed in the last decade. Similarly, a season of violence and extreme conflict seemed to be ushered into Iraq by international actors in 2003, after the US and Britain waged war on the region in an attempt to eliminate the reign of Saddam Hussein.[2] Further conflict in the region arose when the different sects of Islam (being Sunni and Shia) waged war against both each other and the Islamic State (IS) as each attempted to claim political and religious control. As this conflict continued, the reach of the IS expanded out of Iraq and into neighboring countries, such as Syria and Libya.  Struggles for power are also present in areas of conflict in North Africa, as is exemplified by Tunisia’s political upheaval resulting from chronic “economic inequality and the social and economic marginalization”.[3] Protests are occurring throughout the country to call out the corruption in the Tunisian government, as officials are not held accountable for the injustices they cause. Further, the government’s inaction on this front has led to violent revolts and protests, ultimately causing many deaths and injuries.

As a whole, these conflicts have created a crisis in the Mediterranean, driving people to leave areas in which they no longer feel safe to attempt to seek asylum in other countries. For many of these people, seeking asylum means crossing the Mediterranean Sea, which can extremely dangerous or even fatal. Since 2000, the International Organization for Migration estimates that 40,000 refugees have died attempting to seek asylum.[4] The high mortality rate of refugees crossing these waters has made the Mediterranean into a mass grave of sorts, where bodies are left in a liminal space between identification and social death.

Migrant body floating in Mediterranean Sea

We call this a liminal space because many of the families of these migrants never find closure in learning about what happened to their family members after they left their home countries. This lack of closure dramatically affects the family’s grieving processes and rituals, either interrupting them or in some cases making them impossible to complete. In predominately Islamic countries, such as Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia, after a person dies, their body is cleaned and wrapped in a white cloth. Then, a family member pays off any debts the deceased had in life so his soul can be at peace. At the funeral, the men in the family carry the coffin to the grave. There are groups, called adadas, that sing mourning songs.[5] Friends and members of the community visit the family, like they do in the US. Women usually wear black clothes for months, sometimes a year or more, and men grow out their beards to show mourning. The burial is performed in 24 hours or less because Muslims believe that the soul lives in the body for 40 days.[6] The lost and unidentified bodies make is impossible to perform these funeral traditions, and in turn, complete the grieving process in accordance with their cultural traditions.

This lack of identification affects both the dead and the living, as there are a number of moral and ethical implications relating to the identification of migrant bodies, as well as the failure to do so. As previously discussed, many migrants find themselves in liminal spaces as a result of violence, conflict, or other forms of unrest. Therefore, we can look to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 for some of the reasoning behind why the identification of migrant bodies is so important, given that these guidelines are meant to be applied during times of conflict. According to the Geneva Conventions, society as a whole has ethical and humanitarian obligations to identify the dead, which should be “respected and fulfilled without discrimination” as a means of honoring the now universally recognized right of human beings to not lose their identity after death.[7] However, the Conventions are less explicit about who this responsibility falls to, which becomes perhaps even more convoluted by both the liminal existence of these bodies and the fact that personal identity is becoming increasingly less tied to countries and borders in the face of globalization and its production of a “liquid world.”[8] Further, in considering some of the motivations behind the identification of the bodies of migrants, one must grapple with ethical questions relating to what we owe to the dead and what we owe to the living. Jenny Edkins points to the different impacts of “names without bodies” versus “bodies without names,” which is closely related to our discussion on the dead versus the living and how identification of bodies affects each.[9] For the first, one must consider the importance of identity and whether or not it matters after death. While there is no definitive answer to this question, we contest that identity after death is of grave importance for a number of reasons. Without considerations for personal identity, we fail to acknowledge people as unique human beings rather than just numbers or statistics, thus violating ethical standards relating to human rights. This idea is supported by Mordini and Ottolini, who state that “one can be entitled with rights only if he has an identity. No political, civil and social right can be enforced on anonymous crowds.”[8] In this sense, personhood does not end with death- a concept that is made even more obvious by the myriad of rituals and practices surrounding concepts of “social death” and grieving.

Volunteer holds the body of an infant pulled out of the water

In a similar vein, it is important to think about the impacts of identifying the bodies of migrants can have for their families and others close to them, who also exist in a sort of liminal space in the sense that they live with uncertainty regarding the fate of their loved one. This state of being is further described by Boss, who states that by not knowing what had happened to those they lost, they were forced to experience “the ambiguity of absence and presence.”[10] There are several implications of this, such as the fact that researchers have cited this emotional distress as an ethical concern in methodologies that becomes a potential barrier to identification and/or communication with living migrants, as it was deemed unethical to interview individuals in such a state.[11] This relates to Borneman’s argument that, in these situations, the dead govern the living, rather than the other way around, and that “the migrant body appears to have agency; such bodies can both nourish and haunt the living… Beyond the affective impacts of the dead body, i.e. those that touch people emotionally, attachment to the dead and in particular to certain bodies – particularly where they are absent – gives them power over the living.”[12] This suspended state can fluctuate between grief and hope, making it difficult if not impossible for those who knew these deceased migrants during life to mourn their loss appropriately. The inability to mourn and go through processes of incorporation through the dead affects both the bereaved and the dead in the sense that mourning is “an ethical responsibility of those close to the dead, and one denied to the relatives of those missing” when bodies remain unidentified.[11]

One of the most famous images surrounding the crisis in the Mediterranean, showing the body of a shipwrecked Syrian toddler

In continuing our discussion on how the identification or lack thereof of migrant bodies affects the living, we turn to some of the challenges faced by those actively trying to identify said bodies. This process begins, not surprisingly, by finding bodies to identify. In the context of the Mediterranean, bodies are usually found in one of two ways- they either wash up on beaches or are pulled out of the ocean. As a result of colder environments, fewer “necrophageous insects,” and high salt concentration of the water, bodies that are under water for some time tend to decompose more slowly than bodies on land. However, there are still some challenges presented in the search for migrant bodies lost at sea. Bodies tend to float in water as a result of being less dense, though sometimes random variations in density (for example, brought on by swallowing water) can lead to the body sinking. Once it starts sinking, the body will likely continue to do so as pressure on the body further decompresses internal gases, and unless pinned down by debris, it will resurface after further decomposition. This cyclical nature of movement makes it such that those working with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean have to be “at the right place at the right time” in order to retrieve bodies of migrants. As a result, many bodies are never recovered. The chance of this happening becomes even more likely if bodies are found by scavengers, because while there are less insects in these environments, various types of sharks and crabs, along with other forms of marine life, will feed on the deceased.[13]

Even if a body is able to be recovered, the hard work of attempting to identify the body has only just begun. This is a monumental task that requires collaboration between governments and other institutions, along with a host of forensic data. There are two vital players in the identification of bodies: the Interpol’s Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) guidelines and the (AM/PM) database, which outline the processes through which identification may be possible. More specifically, the DVI is a set of guide lines that helps standardize a cheap and effective way to collect uncontaminated forensic data.[14] This process starts with the collection postmortem data, including pictures of the corpse, DNA samples, and an odonatological examination. Photographs taken of the body in this stage focus on defining features such as “tattoos, scars, piercings and moles,” and any samples taken are in accordance with DVI guidelines. The DVI standardizes every part of the postmortem data collection process, from the tools and workstations used to the angles of cuts needed to probe different areas of the body. This standardization allows for more accurate data as it is designed to reduce error in data collection. Additionally, these guidelines include a multi-step approach so that if one method of identification fails, there are other to fall back on. For example, even when there is extensive decomposition acted on the body, making photographs not particularly useful tools, it is possible to get a viable DNA sample by drilling into bone. In addition to the collection of DNA samples, the corpse’s teeth are examined and documented. This is particularly important because examination of teeth makes it possible to estimate where the person might have lived and their age range, even if the body has decomposed beyond recognition.[15] Another approach taken in the identification of migrant bodies in the Mediterranean is the collection of antemortem data. This process includes the collection of a missing person’s antemortem report, where pictures and DNA samples are collected in an interview. The purpose of this database is to collect as much data as possible so that forensic scientists can attempt to match recovered bodies to descriptions given during these interviews.[16]

Despite all of these methods, a number of hurdles still stand in the way of identifying recovered bodies. The precariousness that defines the movement of migrants makes it difficult for families to even know if their relatives are missing, and they often are only made aware of this fact through word-of-mouth sources suggesting that their relative may have been at a shipwreck or traveling with a certain group of people, and even then there is no way to verify these claims. Additionally, it is not uncommon for missing persons reports for refugees to be filed months or even years after they have fled their home countries. This temporal distance can add complexity to the process of identification, making it difficult if not impossible to find pictures, family and other information that could help identify the body. The effects of this are compounded by the fact that sometimes those filing reports are not directly related to the missing migrant, as is highlighted in an article by Lara Olivier et al., which states that 20 out of 53 reports were made by “non-genetically related relatives” such as “spouses, friends or second degree relatives.” [17] This presents challenges in the sense that these individuals may be less equipped to provide the antemortem data necessary for identification to be possible.

The trauma of death during migration is complex and multifaceted, and its effects are certainly not limited to one group of actors. Rather, this type of death affects not only the deceased, but their loved ones and those involved in the process of trying to identify them. Those invested in the identification of bodies are driven to do so by similar yet distinct motivations, with families having cultural and ethical responsibilities to grieve appropriately, and forensic scientists having ethical codes and guidelines to uphold. These entanglements make it especially difficult to navigate the identification of bodies and to reconcile with those that are left unidentified. Additionally, this presents an interesting dichotomy between these two groups of “the living”, one of which interacts with a memory and no body, while the other interacts with a body with no memory or history. For the dead, this raises questions relating to which of these aspects of self are the most closely related to one’s personhood, or if the two must be reunited through body identification in order for identity to be truly claimed after death. In this sense, we argue that the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is defined largely by liminality- of movement, for the deceased, and for those left behind.


[1] Brian, Tara, and Frank Laczko. Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration. Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2014.


[2] Al Jazeera. “Syria’s Civil War Explained from the Beginning.” News | Al Jazeera. April 14, 2018. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[3] Aboueldahab, Noha. “Unrest in Tunisia: Another Turning Point in a Legacy of Economic Injustice.” Brookings. January 29, 2018. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[4] Khiabany, Gholam. “Refugee Crisis, Imperialism and Pitiless Wars on the Poor.” Media, Culture & Society 38, no. 5 (July 2016): 755–62. doi:10.1177/0163443716655093.


[5] “Tunisian Funeral Customs | The Definitive Funeral Planning and Information Resource.” 2019. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[6] Berens, K. “Syrian Funeral Practices | The Definitive Funeral Planning and Information Resource.” 2019. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[7] Cattaneo, C., M. Tidball Binz, L. Penados, J. Prieto, O. Finegan, and M. Grandi. “The Forgotten Tragedy of Unidentified Dead in the Mediterranean.” Forensic Science International 250 (2015). Accessed March 28, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2015.02.007.


[8] Mordini, Emilio, and Corinna Ottolini. “Body Identification, Biometrics and Medicine: Ethical and Social Considerations.” Ann Ist Super Sanità 43, no. 1 (2007): 51-60. Accessed March 29, 2019. doi:10.4018/9781599047805.ch011.



[9] Edkins, Jenny. “Missing Migrants and the Politics of Naming: Names Without Bodies, Bodies Without Names.” Social Research 83, no. 2 (2016): 359-89. Accessed March 28, 2019. ProQuest.


[10] Boss, P. “Insights: Ambiguous Loss: Living with Frozen Grief.” The Harvard Mental Health Letter 16, no. 5 (1999): 4-6. Accessed March 30, 2019.


[11] Kovras, Iosif, and Simon Robins. “Death as the Border: Managing Missing Migrants and Unidentified Bodies at the EUs Mediterranean Frontier.” Political Geography 55 (November 2016): 40-49. Accessed March 28, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2016.05.003.



[12] Borneman, John. “Abandonment and Victory in Relations with Dead Bodies.” Edited by Finn Stepputat. In Governing the Dead: Sovereignty and the Politics of Dead Bodies, 260-74. Manchester University Press, 2016.


[13] Ellingham, S. T. D., Perich, P., & Tidball-Binz, M. (2017). The fate of human remains in a maritime context and feasibility for forensic humanitarian action to assist in their recovery and identification. Forensic Science International, 279, 229–234.


[14] Boer, H. H. De, Maat, G. J. R., Kadarmo, D. A., Widodo, P. T., Kloosterman, A. D., & Kal, A. J. (2018). DNA identification of human remains in Disaster Victim Identification ( DVI ): An efficient sampling method for muscle, bone, bone marrow and teeth, 289, 253–259.


[15] Nuzzolese, E. (2018). Dental autopsy for the identification of missing persons. Journal of Forensic Dental Sciences, 10(1), 50–54.


[16] Hofmeister, U., Martin, S. S., Villalobos, C., Padilla, J., & Finegan, O. (2017). The ICRC AM/PM Database: Challenges in forensic data management in the humanitarian sphere. Forensic Science International, 279, 1–7.


[17] Olivieri, L., Mazzarelli, D., Bertoglio, B., De Angelis, D., Previderè, C., Grignani, P., … Cattaneo, C. (2018). Challenges in the identification of dead migrants in the Mediterranean: The case study of the Lampedusa shipwreck of October 3rd 2013. Forensic Science International, 285, 121–128.


Keara McLean, Catherine Orlowski, Michael White

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.

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