- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

When two homeless illegal aliens were stabbed to death in a parking lot in Langley Park in August, a nonprofit group raised $20,000 to embalm, transport and bury the victims in their native countries.

But if the Gaithersburg-based Victims’ Rights Foundation had not intervened, the men’s bodies would have remained in the custody of the state and disposed of according to Maryland customs.

Once they were called “potter’s fields” — small tracts where local governments buried the unclaimed remains of the poor and the unknown.

The term has fallen into disuse, but the need to dispose of the unclaimed dead has not.

There is no national standard for disposing of human remains, so every jurisdiction employs its own methods for ensuring a dignified final disposition.

In the District, Maryland and Virginia — where 1,000 remains each year are unclaimed and many are never identified — the means for final disposition vary widely.

Counties and cities in Virginia arrange for burials in modern-day potter’s fields.

In Maryland, wherever possible, the unclaimed dead are bused to various schools across the state and around the country to become the training tools of physicians, therapists and morticians. Then they are cremated and interred in a ceremony that is held once a year at a state cemetery.

Unclaimed remains in the District are usually cremated after 30 days or buried within 50 miles of the city limits if the medical examiner can’t put a name to the body.

“We really want to give respect to the person,” said Michelle Mack, director of forensic investigation in the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

D.C. process

Once a person’s death is officially recorded by authorities, the clock for disposing of the remains starts ticking.

In most cases, the dead person is identified, the next of kin is notified and the body is released to a funeral home.

But in some cases, it takes longer to identify the body or to locate the family.

In the District, those cases are addressed by a city statute that requires the medical examiner to hold the body for 30 days.

“The ultimate intent is to find someone. You don’t wait 30 days and then say, ‘30 days are up.’” said Sharlene Williams, the office’s legal counsel. “Sometimes, based on leads, you have reason to believe there’s family out there.”

In such cases, the medical examiner will hold the body longer, she said.

Meanwhile, forensic investigators take photographs, fingerprints and X-rays for their files. The files are held for 30 years. If the deceased was a homicide victim and the case was unsolved, the records are held for 65 years.

For 30 days, the remains are held exclusively for the family. After 30 days, anyone can claim the remains as long as they are turned over to a licensed funeral director.

Miss Williams said there have been cases in which a person who left no one behind was well-loved in a community, and neighbors claimed the remains and bore the expenses of the burial.

“If someone wants to do it, they can do it,” she said. “After 30 days, anyone who wants to take it on can do it.”

If a body is identified but goes unclaimed, it will likely be cremated and the ashes buried.

The office disposed of about 134 unclaimed bodies in 2004. There have been about 108 so far this year.

The District has contracts with several local funeral homes to dispose of bodies. The contracts are competitively bid. By the terms of the contract, the District pays $495 to cremate an adult. It costs $239 to cremate a child.

Miss Mack said there are very few cases each year when an identity can’t be established at all.

“It happens a few times a year,” she said. “We might have less than 10, sometimes less than five, who are completely unidentified.”

No unidentified bodies are cremated. Miss Williams said there is always a chance that a family member will show up at a later date and want to claim the body.

“The last thing you want is to dispose of a body, and then a week later have family show up,” she said.

For that reason, unidentified bodies are turned over to funeral services for burial, which by law must occur within 50 miles of the District. The grave site is marked by a plate carrying the case number assigned to the deceased.

The average cost of the burial is $1,998.

Maryland method

Cesar Mayorga, 34, of Guatemala, and Anibal Escobar Cruz, 28, of Honduras, were stabbed to death early Aug. 10 as they slept in the parking lot of a Toys R Us store in Langley Park. A third homeless man survived his stabbing wounds, but police have no suspects in the attacks.

W. Gregory Wims, founder and president of the Victims’ Rights Foundation, said he became involved with the men’s relatives after a volunteer who lives in Langley Park told him about the stabbings. His group arranged for the disposition of Mr. Mayorga’s and Mr. Cruz’s remains in their home countries.

Otherwise, their remains would have been processed according to the state’s regulations.

Maryland hospitals, hospices and health care facilities have 72 hours to notify families before unclaimed bodies are delivered to the state’s Anatomy Board, which is a division of the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“The Anatomy Board has exclusive authority after three days to do whatever is necessary for public health,” said Ronn Wade, who has overseen the Anatomy Board since 1974.

If it appears no one is going to claim the body after three days and the body is suitable for study, Mr. Wade has the body embalmed and bused to schools across the state and around the country to become the training tools of physicians, therapists, morticians and researchers.

“The idea is to create the greatest good we can,” he said. “Many times a body is unclaimed for a reason.” Maryland is one of a handful of states with legislatively established anatomy boards whose function is to support medical education.

According to the 2005 performance report from the state Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, in 2004 the board took in 755 bodies, of which 352 were claimed. The other 403 bodies were unclaimed and made up 41.4 percent of the 973 bodies considered suitable for study. The rest were donated bodies.

The state recouped $277,572 from institutions requesting cadavers for research.

Mr. Wade said that sometimes people don’t have family, they outlive family members, they are estranged from family or the family simply doesn’t have the money to dispose of the body.

He said that 99 percent of bodies are ultimately identified.

At $204.50, the process is efficient.

The cost includes a flat fee of $50 for funeral services to deliver bodies from morgues or hospitals to the Anatomy Board in Baltimore.

The bodies are embalmed, and, whether or not they are used for medical research, they are returned to the Anatomy Board.

Then the bodies are fully frozen and placed in a $12 pouch. The pouch is placed inside a cardboard cremation container that costs $32.50.

The bodies are transported eight at a time to a contracted private crematory for $20 each. They are individually cremated at a cost of $90 apiece.

After that, the ashes are collected and brought back to the Anatomy Board, where they are held for about a year in case someone comes to claim them.

Once a year, on the third Monday in June, the ashes of the prior year’s deceased are interred at a two-acre grave site on the grounds of Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville.

All unclaimed bodies are cremated.

“Our grave site is not for the burial of bodies, it is for the burial of ashes,” Mr. Wade said.

The memorial is the final disposition of the body, so if by chance a long-lost relative returns to claim the ashes of a loved one after they were buried, they will not be disinterred.

Mr. Wade said there are just under 1,200 cremations per year. That figure includes the remains of persons who have donated their bodies to science.

County control

The disposal of unidentified or unclaimed remains in Virginia is not handled by an agency of the commonwealth, but by the individual counties.

In Fairfax County, the unclaimed are buried in publicly purchased graves in a private cemetery, similar to a potter’s field.

The term potter’s field is widely believed to have originated from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, in which priests took the 30 silver pieces thrown down by Judas and used the money to buy a burial ground for foreigners.

It was called the potter’s field because the land was not good for growing crops and could only be used by potters to dig clay.

The term has since come to be associated with cemeteries where the poor or unclaimed are buried.

Since 1992, when the county cemetery on Jermantown Road reached its 230-grave capacity, the county has contracted with a funeral service. The funeral service has a contract with National Memorial Park on Lee Highway in Falls Church.

Burials are handled through the county’s adult and aging division for the Department of Family Services.

“In terms of unidentified deceased, we, in the past few years, have not had any,” said Barbara Antley, the agency’s director.

She said hospitals or morgues contact the agency’s social workers when a body is unclaimed.

If the person is identified but unclaimed, the county attorney will go to a judge for a court order allowing the county to take responsibility for disposal.

Ms. Antley said the amount of time they wait can vary. She said that it can be up to a few weeks if court permission is required.

“It’s not a time limit; it’s a matter of if there is someone who can claim them,” she said.

During that time, the body is stored at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The agency’s social workers will look for anyone close to the deceased to determine the person’s preference, be it burial or cremation.

“We try to look at what the deceased would have wanted,” she said. “If it is unknown, we do a burial. We want to be respectful of the decedent’s wishes and background.”

That includes religious observances, a provision for which is written into the county’s contract.

For example, bodies of unclaimed persons known to be Muslim are placed in graves that face toward Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

However, religious services are not performed for unclaimed persons.

Ms. Antley said the county is working on identifying a site for another county cemetery.

In fiscal 2005, 40 persons were buried at the county’s expense. Another 22 were cremated.

She estimated that up to a third of them were unclaimed bodies.

The rest belonged to families who could not afford burial services.

A burial costs taxpayers $1,459. Cremation costs $602.

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