When people die, their loved ones mourn: They schedule funerals, write obituaries and grieve.
So, what happens if a person’s family can’t be found? Or there’s no one left to take care of their loved one?
That responsibility falls onto the local government and sheriff’s offices — and it’s not uncommon.
“It’s supposed to take the burden off the public,” said Liz Parman, assistant county attorney for James City County. “The idea is that if it wasn’t the local government that stepped in, it could be a problem for hospitals and other entities that deal with unclaimed bodies.”
The Code of Virginia has a section dictating the process for disposing of an “unclaimed dead body.” Under certain circumstances, the locality is tasked with cremating or burying the remains.
First, the person must have either died in, or been a resident of, the locality that pays for the cremation or burial, the code states.
Second, the person’s next of kin cannot be identified or found, the next of kin claims they are financially unable to afford arrangements, or the next of kin fails to make arrangements to claim or refuses to claim the remains.
The local sheriff’s office — that’s the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office and Williamsburg-James City County Sheriff’s Office in the Historic Triangle — handles the investigation to find next of kin.
The process, how often does it happen?
All Historic Triangle localities pay to cremate the remains of unclaimed dead bodies, instead of holding burials.
“We use cremation because it is the most cost effective,” Capt. Troy Lyons, spokesman for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office.
When a sheriff’s office investigation determines the remains are unclaimed, and the locality of residence for the deceased cannot be determined, the locality’s attorney’s office submits a petition to the local circuit court asking for an order allowing the locality to transport and dispose of the body.
If the request is granted, the locality will proceed with arranging a cremation.
If next of kin is unable to pay for arrangements or refuses to claim the remains, the medical examiner of the funeral home will notify the locality or sheriff’s office, Lyons said.
In York County, the sheriff’s office is typically allocated enough money to pay for two cremations every year, which is about how many unclaimed remains are handled every year, Lyons said. If there are more unclaimed remains, the sheriff’s office receives money from the county’s general fund.
“If we later determine the decedent has an estate, we can recover our costs from the estate,” Lyons said. “Although this has never happened.”
James City County sees about four unclaimed bodies each year, Parman said. Many of those are deaths that occur at local hospitals.
Parman said James City County has spent $3,475 on cremation services for unclaimed bodies since fiscal year 2014.
In Williamsburg, payment for cremation comes out of the city’s general fund, spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said.
The city paid for one cremation in 2016, zero in 2017 and two in 2018.
Inmates and mental health patients
While there are set rules for the sheriff’s office and localities to handle the final disposition of human remains, there are additional rules for inmates in state correctional facilities and patients in state mental health facilities.
If next of kin cannot be found or refuses to claim the remains, the state Department of Corrections or Department of Behavioral Health is responsible for final arrangements, Lyons said.
If the inmate or patient’s next of kin is unable to pay the expenses, that responsibility returns to the city or county where the inmate or patient resides, he added.
Lyons wrote in an email “… there are no forms next of kin or claimants have to fill out to determine if they can or cannot afford the arrangements. All they have to do is say they can’t afford the arrangements.”
Partners with the community
Some localities, including James City County and York County, have partnerships with local funeral homes to reduce the cost of cremating the remains.
Cremation can cost about $1,100, according to the Cremation Research Council.
Parman said James City County has partnered with Nelsen Funeral Home in Williamsburg to cremate remains for just under $700.
Lyons said the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office has also partnered with a funeral home to cremate unclaimed remains at a cost of $750 per cremation.
The funeral homes hold the cremains indefinitely.
“If a family member turns up later, they can claim them,” Parman said.
No localities in the area hold or pay for funerals.
“Some people may not have any family members left,” Parman said.