December 25th, 2013

Internet Sleuths Use Genealogy research Techniques to Track Down Next of Kin for Coroners

I thought this was a really cool story that really emphasizes the value of genealogical research. Imagine the number of homeless people who die alone each year in America, alienated from their families and friends. Sometimes bodies are damaged so badly in an accident that they are unidentifiable. Though efforts are made to contact next of kin, it is not always possible.

Even when a body is not claimed within a 72 hour period, a concentrated effort is made to locate a family member or friend who can take responsibility for the body. The end result is not always a happy one however, and after a certain time period, the burial and funeral arrangements become the responsibility of the county in which the body was found. In certain circumstances the body is donated to science.

Previously these bodies lay unclaimed in a morgue, their fate a cremation by the state and a burial, often as a Jane or John Doe in a potter’s field. That is changing however, due to the wonderful efforts of a group of volunteers around the United States who are using genealogical research techniques and resources to track down the next of kin of unclaimed individuals.

The volunteers work tirelessly for an organization known as Unclaimed Persons. They specialize in using genealogy techniques and resources such as vital records, obituaries, immigration records, and large genealogy databases such as the Family Search collections and National Archives to find those who may want to lay their loved ones to rest.

Investigators in local and county coroners’ offices often spend months trying to track down surviving relatives, often with little success. Unclaimed persons however, have taken on almost 600 cases over the last 5 years, successfully closing 355. Needless to say, the family is always grateful, even though the news is sad.

One such example is that of James Fuller, a homeless individual who passed away in Stanton, California. Mr. Fuller was the responsibility of the Orange County coroner’s office, and spent months trying to track down his next of kin. After handing the investigation over to Unclaimed Persons, they located his son, Justin Alexander in a matter of weeks.

They found Justin living in Ohio; the last time he had seen his father (which was also the only time he ever met him) was when he was only five years old. Now 32, Justin was grateful that he could oversee his estranged father’s internment and ensure he was laid to rest with the dignity he deserved, though saddened that he now knew he would not get to meet with his father again.

There is a case manager assigned to every unclaimed persons file, who in turn oversees around fifteen researchers assigned to every case. There are approximately 500 volunteers currently working for Unclaimed Persons, and they have investigated cases in 20 states, and in more than 40 counties. They are currently involved in pursuing upwards of 90 cases.

Locating and contacting surviving family members of unclaimed bodies is a great challenge for medical examiners across the nation, especially when the deceased have no identification papers. Unclaimed Persons is a prime example of the passion, dedication, and generosity of volunteer genealogical researchers who use their skills and knowledge to help others to unite with their family members, whatever the circumstances might be.