Unclaimed bodies pile up as payments wither, overdoses rise


Who takes care of the unclaimed dead, the people who were homeless or estranged from family members, or who outlived all their kin, and left no assets behind?

The answer is usually funeral homes that get reimbursed by state or local governments for the cost of cremation or burial. But payments are not keeping up with ever-rising expenses in some places, like Massachusetts, meaning the number of funeral homes willing to shoulder the burden is dwindling. In at least one state, West Virginia, drug overdose victims have used up nearly all the money set aside for the unclaimed dead.

“These are human beings, someone’s mother, father, sister, brother,” said Peter Stefan, a funeral director in his 70s who buries dozens of unclaimed bodies a year in central Massachusetts. “What do you do with these people? If I leave this place this way, the poor won’t have too many options.”

The $1,110 reimbursement for funeral directors who bury the indigent and unclaimed in Massachusetts hasn’t risen in 35 years. The total cost for their time, the casket, transportation of the corpse and a burial plot can be double that, they say.

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