Coroners grapple with rising numbers of unclaimed bodies

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — There were no flowers, no words of comfort, no eulogies in honor of the deceased. There were no tears shed, no somber prayers and not a single family member standing graveside.

There was just Pauline and Noah Zimmerman, a funeral director and a couple of men who had backed a truck carrying 600 bags of cremated human remains right up to the edge of a large, freshly dug hole in the ground just outside Lancaster city.

On this July day, at Mellinger Mennonite Cemetery along Lincoln Highway, the men were performing a ritual that has become increasingly common in Lancaster County and the surrounding area: a mass interment for the “unclaimed.”

“There’s not usually a service. They just get placed and my husband, Noah, then fills in the grave,” says Pauline Mellinger, a caretaker at the cemetery.

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Indeed, on this day, the workers placed the 600 plastic bags containing the remains in the burial site, got in their truck and pulled away with the funeral director. “They must have wanted to get them off their shelves,” says Zimmerman.

She and her husband are used to the indifference of those performing the task. Some time ago, a funeral director preparing to inter the cremated remains of 1,000 people made this request of Noah: “Dig the grave deep.”

He knew there would be more.

And this summer there were.

Explaining the unclaimed

Until their burial, the unclaimed rest in black cardboard boxes inside a metal cabinet at the Lancaster County morgue in East Hempfield Township. Their cremated remains are organized neatly on shelves according to year of death.

The boxes serve as a reminder of the disconnectedness, and sometimes the coldness, of society. These are the people who have died alone and have no surviving family. These are the people whose relatives can’t afford to claim them, or in some cases simply choose not to. These, in some cases, are victims of the opioid epidemic.

“Sometimes we can’t find the next of kin, and some people honestly can’t afford to pay for the burial costs of their loved ones,” says Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni. “But more sadly, some don’t care enough about their family members to provide a proper burial.

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“One man we contacted said, ‘I never liked my dad. For all I care, you can throw him out the window.’ That’s sad to me that someone would have no emotional…

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