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. http://www.legacy.com/news/culture-and-trends/article/why-the-traditional-funeral-thrives-in-the-21st-century

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. NamUs.gov 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. https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/vicap/unidentified-persons.

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. www.identifyus.org/en/cases/11410

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. https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/65710/potters-field

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.  http://thefuneralsource.org/trad01.html.

[2] Ritter, Nancy. n.d. “Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.” National Institute of Justice. https://nij.gov/journals/256/pages/missing-persons.aspx.

[3] “The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).” n.d. NamUs.gov.  https://www.namus.gov/.

[4] “Unidentified Human Remains: How Many Are There in the U.S.? What Happens to Them?” n.d. Sixwise.com. http://www.sixwise.com/newsletters/07/07/11/unidentified-human-remains-how-many-are-there-in-the-us-what-happens-to-them.htm.

[5] Halber, Deborah. 2016. “How To Identify An Unidentified Body.” How To Identify An Unidentified Body. May 17, 2016. http://digg.com/2016/192-days-as-john-doe.

[6] Haglund, William D. 1993. “The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing and Unidentified Persons System Revisited.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 38 (2). https://doi.org/10.1520/jfs13417j.

[7] Ritter.

[8] Ritter.

[9] Hauser, Christine. “A Dead Baby Was Found in a Ditch in 1981.” New York Times, March 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/us/sioux-falls-baby-theresa-bentaas.html.

[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). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0379073809004642.

[12] Cattaneo.

[13] Cattaneo.

[14] Cattaneo.

[15] Cattaneo.

[16] NamUs.

[17] “ViCAP Unidentified Persons.” 2010. FBI. October 26, 2010. https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/vicap/unidentified-persons.

[18] “Potter’s Field.” 2019. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. March 24, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potter’s_field.

[19] Solomon, Adina. 2018. “State-Funded Funerals: What Happens to the Unclaimed Dead?” HowStuffWorks. February 22, 2018. https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/cultural-traditions/state-funded-funerals-what-happens-to-unclaimed-dead.htm.

[20] Solomon.

[21] Solomon.

[22] “Unidentified Bodies in Autopsy – A Disaster in Disguise.” 2013. Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences. June 17, 2013. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2090536X13000439.

[23] Kotabagi, R B, S C Charati, and D Jayachandar. 2005. “Clinical Autopsy vs Medicolegal Autopsy.” Medical Journal, Armed Forces India. Elsevier. July 2005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4925615/.

[24] McEntire, David, Abdul-Akeem Sadiq, and Kailash Gupta. “Unidentified Bodies and Mass-Fatality Management in Haiti.” ScholarWorks. November 2012. https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/3390.

[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. https://www.cnn.com/asia/live-news/live-updates-new-zealand-shooting-christchurch-terror-attack-intl/index.html.