Burying the unclaimed dead shows the greatest respect for life

by | Jul 26, 2020 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 1 comment

“They count as quite forgot;

They are as men who have existed not”

— Thomas Hardy

Every month, bodies that once held life arrive in the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office. And no one claims them.

No one mourns their passing. No one organizes a final farewell.

So someone does it for them.

Actually, more than one person. It is a small chain of human decency, a quiet, under-the-radar effort involving government workers, funeral home directors and cemeteries that has been going on for six years. This chain, comprised of Jews and Christians, Blacks and whites, is a model of community cooperation at a time when we seem to focus only on how we don’t get along.

With COVID-19, their effort is now being stretched to the limit. Nonetheless, it soldiers on, because death with dignity should be given to all.

It starts with the medical examiner’s office, which tries to locate the dead person’s next of kin. Albert Samuels, 72, has been doing this for 23 years. As the administrative supervisor, he and his staff use every means possible — fingerprints, databases, service records, social media — to try and find family.

Often times, they are the ones who must deliver the message, “I’m sorry to inform you, but your son (or mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, niece, nephew or grandparent) has died.”

Then comes the really hard part. The next of kin is not interested. Or says it has no money. The WMCE gives them extra time — sometimes 60 days or more, while storing the bodies — to find funds or make arrangements. But it often doesn’t happen.

“They stop answering the phones, they change their numbers,” Samuels says. “We send everyone registered mail notices and wait for that little green card to come back. More often than not, it’s the letter itself that gets returned.”

That is the first piece of heartbreak this mercy chain must witness. Indifference. Many people don’t want to be bothered. Some don’t even want to acknowledge the death, because they’re worried if the government finds out, that person’s “federal aid checks will stop coming,” Samuels says.

As a veteran, Samuels says his heart breaks when he discovers a former soldier lies amongst the forgotten. But worse, he confesses, are the babies. Infants that have died, and no one shows to claim the tiny corpse.

“That’s the toughest,” Samuels says. “I don’t understand it.”

Ultimately, the responsibility for these corpses falls on the medical examiner’s office. But their funds are limited. They can’t bury them all.

Which is where the next links attach.

‘This is how it should be’

A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home and the Ira Kaufman Chapel, two Oakland County funeral operations, have been partnering since 2014 to insure these unclaimed Wayne County bodies are given a dignified resting place. It doesn’t matter that it’s not their responsibility — or even their county.

“These are not John or Jane Does,” John Desmond explains. “They’re unclaimed for lack of money, lack of love or lack of bother.

“Every year there are about 500 bodies that go unclaimed. It’s something that we pledge to do something about, because the need is there.”

Desmond, the 75 year-old funeral director, initially got involved back in 2014, after a local TV news story revealed nearly 170 unclaimed corpses stacked at the WCME’s facilities. The images were jarring. Body bags with handwritten numbers. Rack after rack, filling up freezers. Others saw that story and were also moved to action.

“I received a call from Mark Davidoff, who at the time was chairing something called the Jewish Fund,” says David Techner, 68, the funeral director for Kaufman Chapel. “When he saw that report, he had tears in his eyes. He wanted the Jewish Fund to help those people from the city of Detroit.”

Never mind that, according to Techner, none of those initial deceased were Jewish. Some things are bigger than our individual beliefs or identities. We are, in the end, all part of the human family.

So with money from the Jewish Fund and contributions from other sources, including the Michigan Funeral Directors Association, and help from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, that initial group of unclaimed bodies was buried in Our Lady Of Hope Cemetery in Brownstown Township. Strangers came out to witness the service, some dressing up, some bearing flowers, just so those being laid to rest would have the dignity of human attendance.

Meanwhile, those bodies identified as veterans were and have been interred at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly. Samuels himself attended a service for 11 former soldiers, all unclaimed corpses, and watched silently as they were put to rest with a military sendoff.

“I just wanted to see that finality,” he recalls. “You’re in the office. You do the paperwork. You see the body loaded up, but then what happens? You just want to see the finish.

“You can make good out of a bad. It makes you feel good that they finally got something decent at the end, regardless of how they lived their life.

“Animals eat their dead. Humans bury theirs. This is how it should be. We’re supposed to be the most intelligent beings, right?”

The burden grows heavier

These days, COVID-19 has introduced a new challenge to this already extraordinary problem. According to Desmond, the number of dead he saw from March to June was double the normal amount. This has affected the number of unclaimed bodies as well. Now, in addition to four temperature-controlled rooms for the corpses, the WCME “rented a huge temperature controlled truck” for the additional onslaught, Desmond says.

Samuels confirms that. And while the new bodies are actually not often official COVID-19 deaths, he has noticed they’re sometimes “more decomposed when we get them” suggesting they have been ignored longer, perhaps because of fear of contact, or the deceased being unable to get to a medical facility before expiring. That, too, is likely connected to living in a coronavirus world.

And so slowly, patiently, the process begins again. Databases are checked. Phone calls are made. Letters sent. And once again, people do not respond, won’t pick up the phone, change their address or just plead inability or disinterest. After giving as much time as possible, Samuels notifies the Desmond and Kaufman funeral homes, who put the word out to other funeral operations. Together, they pick up who come and claim the bodies, usually early in the morning, and begin the process of a decent farewell.

Today, many of the dead are cremated and interred in a specially designated crypt at Our Lady of Hope.

It is called, “The Crypt of the Angels.”

Meanwhile, all honorably discharged veterans are guaranteed burial at Great Lakes National Cemetery, which absorbs all the costs, according to Desmond.

“It is a beautiful thing to be a part of,” Techner says.

This is all because a handful of people, notably Samuels and his staff, Desmond, Techner and his son, Chad, Davidoff, the Jewish Fund, and the folks at the two cemeteries, saw a problem and could not walk away from it. They cared deeply enough about people whose names they did not know to insure they did not rot in a potter’s field of indifference.

In Hardy’s iconic poem, he hears voices from a graveyard lamenting the moment the dead are totally forgotten, and thus wiped from the earth’s collective consciousness:

“Theirs is a loss past loss of fitful breath;

It is the second death”.

A small chain of good-hearted people are making sure that second death does not occur before the remains are put to rest. In doing do, they demonstrate a compassion to their fellow human beings, even the dead ones, that we’d do well to model in everyday life.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    It is always an eye opener when I read something like this. I always think really people do this. Geez. Part of the reason that I view things this way is because I am a Unicorn Empath Archetype. I do have a couple Dragon traits but mostly the Unicorn.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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