HOLMBERG: Unclaimed bodies get a new law, unidentified bodies get new recognition

Posted at 1:00 AM, May 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-07 09:19:14-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - For generations, your local sheriff’s office stepped in when there was an unclaimed body that needed to go to Boot Hill.

It’s a tough chore.  You’ve got to try to find someone who will claim the body and perhaps pay for its final resting place.

Nowadays, in the midst of a still-slow economy and less-than-cohesive families, that can be a chore. It means tracking down distant relatives in far-flung places. Did the deceased have insurance, veterans benefits, perhaps a burial plan at work? Doesn’t anyone want to step up?

That’s when they’ve got to ask the local government where the deceased call home to pay for an indigent burial.

And that can take months.

Who should do all this legwork?  Why should it be the sheriff’s office in cities where there’s also a police department? What about the fact that some localities will pay for a pauper’s burial, but other’s won’t?

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has plenty of room to wait for the process. There’s room in their coolers for 600 or so bodies.

But they only get the cases in which the cause of death isn’t clear and they have to make a determination: homicides, car crashes, drug overdoses, found bodies, mysterious deaths.

But for hospitals and nursing homes, which is where most known people with known medical conditions die, there’s little or no room for unclaimed bodies.

This already-tough issue threatened to spin out of control last year, Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody asked the state Attorney General for a legal interpretation about whether they were bound by law to deal with unclaimed bodies that aren’t Medical Examiner cases.

Ken Cuchinelli’s opinion:  sheriff’s offices across the state weren’t responsible for those other unclaimed bodies at nursing homes and hospitals. That could’ve created a potential avalanche of unclaimed bodies.

New legislation that just went into effect returns that burden to local law enforcement, and mandates they respond to an unclaimed body from their jurisdiction within 10 days, moving up the starting point of that long road to a final disposition.

Watch our video report and see how that all came about. And see what the state is doing about those folks who are really disconnected in our society – the 150-plus souls who died unknown in Virginia and remain unidentified.

Thanks to new technology and old-fashioned sculpture, their faces can be seen all across the country, even around the world.

Could this happen to you, or someone you love?

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