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What happens to homeless or indigent people when they die and have no relatives?

Ken Little

Undertakers and state or local government employees who supervise cases involving an individual who dies in a hospital, nursing home or other institution have a responsibility to make “reasonable efforts to contact relatives of the deceased or other persons who may wish to claim the body for final disposition,” according to state statute.

If a body remains unclaimed for 10 days, “the person having possession shall notify the Commission of Anatomy.”

The Commission of Anatomy was established in 1975 by the N.C. General Assembly and charged with ensuring a sufficient number of human bodies for the study of anatomy in the state of North Carolina. The Commission also oversees the disposition of unclaimed bodies.

The 10-day time frame can be shortened by a county director of social services “upon determination that a dead body will not be claimed for final disposition within the 10-day period.”

If the Commission of Anatomy declines to receive a dead body, the person in possession must inform the director of social services of the county in which the body is located “and arrange for prompt final disposition of the body, either by cremation or burial.”

Reasonable costs of disposition and of efforts made to notify relatives and others are considered funeral expenses. If they can’t be paid from the decedent’s estate, “they shall be borne by the decedent’s county of residence,” the statute states.

If the person who dies is not a state resident or the county of residence is unknown, then the final expenses are paid by the county where the death occurs.

LaVaughn Nesmith, director of the New Hanover County Department of Social Services, says that the county averages about 10 cases a year. There were eight in 2009 and four to date in 2010, Nesmith says.

Many of the deceased handled by the county are not without family.

“There could be family members who won’t pay for the funeral or sign for it. They won’t claim the body,” Nesmith says.

The county has a contract with Andrews Mortuary in Wilmington to cremate unclaimed bodies at about $450 each, Nesmith says.

The remains are scattered at sea “as needed,” says Andrews Mortuary Funeral Director Duane Howlett. There is no accompanying ceremony.

Howlett says Andrews Mortuary processes about 10 such cases a year. “We just help (the county) as a public service,” he says.

Willed body donation programs have been established at each of the four medical schools in North Carolina – UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, East Carolina and Wake Forest. The Commission of Anatomy provides oversight to each program and guidance in the establishment of other programs in the state that use human bodies for education and research, including Fayetteville Technical College’s program in mortuary science.

For information about donating one’s body to science, go to www.commissiononanatomy.ncdhhs.gov/donate.htm

User-contributed question by:
Barbara Anderson
Barbara Anderson

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5 Responses to “ What happens to homeless or indigent people when they die and have no relatives?”

  1. On February 15, 2010 at 6:16 pm Connie wrote:

    I have always wondered about this. Thanks Barbara, for asking this question. Thank you, MyReporter for publishing this information.

  2. On May 22, 2011 at 6:08 pm Sandy wrote:

    This article has been most helpful. I recently discovered that my father passed away in 2007. My family and I are in shock and are literally looking for his remains. Thank you for this information.

  3. On July 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm ed schmitt wrote:

    My wife’s step son disappeared 20 years ago. He was found dead in Colorado. will the state of Colorado bury and /.or dispose of the body if the family does not want to claim the body and does not have the financial means to dispose of the remains?

  4. On August 22, 2013 at 9:31 am Shawn Stopper wrote:

    my girlfriends sister needs to go for dialysis, although she never does. Wendy’s mom died one year ago of bad kidneys.

    Can you let me know what will happen when she dies?

    Thank you
    Shawn Stopper

  5. On June 22, 2016 at 1:44 pm Wendy Nowell Forster wrote:

    I am working on family history and running in dead ends on Mozelle Ellington Nowell born around 1900 according to Census I have located. She resided with her husband, William Thomas Nowell until his death on 2-26-1960 and he is buried at Oakwood in Raleigh NC. The last known record they lived in Raleigh in 1959. This is where the records stop. I was wondering what would have happened to her body if she died and no one claimed her? Thanks for any help you can offer.

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