A growing number of Washington DC-area families are failing to show up to claim loved ones who have passed away, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the News4 I-Team.
Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. health officials all reported spikes in the number of “unclaimed remains” being handled by local medical examiners.
The Maryland State Anatomy Board, which released records showing a 100 percent increase in “unclaimed” and donated remains since 2000, cited economic struggles for the surge.
Ronn Wade, director of the board, said families are increasingly unable to afford the costs of burial and are forgoing the pickup of remains at local medical examiners’ offices.
“There are families, because of circumstances, who don’t have the means to do pretty much anything," Ward said.
Virginia has experienced a 33 percent increase in unclaimed remains over the past year, according to documents reviewed by the News4 I-Team. The District's “unclaimed” remains jumped from 62 cases in 2010 to 97 cases in 2011.
Taxpayers are ultimately paying for the handling of those remains. Financial records obtained by the News4 I-Team show Maryland officials spent approximately $224,000 to handle hundreds of unclaimed and donated bodies between October 2012 and October 2013.
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Rising homelessness, reported by homeless advocacy groups throughout the D.C. region, has also triggered in spike in unidentified remains at local health departments.
The homeless, a large number of whom do not carry identification, are difficult for authorities to connect with families. Rosemary Ward, a Germantown, Md. federal employee, spent eight years searching for the whereabouts and remains of her 32-year-old son, Matthew.
He died in an abandoned Baltimore rowhouse while living homeless in 2003, but was unidentifiable to authorities who recovered his remains. He was buried in 2006 alongside hundreds of other unclaimed or unidentified Maryland men and women at the state’s community grave site for the unclaimed at Springfield Hospital in Carroll County.
Ward finally learned of her son’s death in 2011 after reviewing the website MarylandMissing.com, which tracks unidentified bodies being processed by the state's health officials. Ward said the long wait was painful.
“Always not knowing and not having a sense of where he was," she said.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and its Sykesville-based mental health staff stage an annual burial ceremony for the “unclaimed” in June. Ward attended and spoke at one of the recent ceremonies.
“Matthew was with me for 32 years, so he’ll always be with me,” she said.