Unclaimed remains points to need for county morgue, coroner says

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Unclaimed remains points to need for county morgue, coroner says

By MARTI COVINGTON mcovington@beaufortgazette.com 843-706-8147
Published Saturday, September 12, 2009 in The Island Packet  |  859 Words  |  news

Boxed and stacked on a high shelf in a storage room of the Beaufort County Coroner's Office are the cremated remains of 53 people.
"You can go from affluent to homeless, newborns to senior citizens," said Coroner Ed Allen, gazing up and pointing at different boxes labeled with names and dates such as "Stacey 2008" and "Baby Boy Washington."
Each package of ashes has gone unclaimed. The recession has made it difficult for some families to pay the cost of burial, estimated by the National Funeral Director's Association to average about $7,300.Nor can many families reimburse the county for cremation, which often costs several hundred dollars.
The trouble, Allen says, is that the county has no morgue of its own in which to store bodies while he and his staff search fornext of kin to claim the remains, nor a potter's field to bury the unclaimed dead.
"As we look right now, everybody is tightening up budgets," said Allen. "But by the same token, the need is still there."
Allen recently sent a memo to county administrator Gary Kubic suggesting the county build a morgue and a pauper's cemetery.
<strong>SPACE AT PREMIUM
</strong>
Inside the box tagged "Stacey 2008" are the ashes of James Stacey, a 67-year-old man found dead last year in the warehouse he rented on Trask Parkway in Beaufort.
"The owner of the building showed up one Saturday and said the guy was a couple months behind on his rent," Allen said. "When he came on site, he detected an odor and called law enforcement. That's what they found inside."
Allen and Deputy Coroner Janet Horton tried for five months to find a family member or friend who could claim Stacey's remains.
They pored over documents and medical records -- Stacey had a history of cancer and made several trips to local hospitals, but always listed himself as next of kin. They talked to his landlord and neighbors and entered his Social Security number and date of birth into electronic databases.
They came up with no leads, and Stacey's cremated remains ended up on the coroner's shelf in March. But the difficulty of storing Stacey's body began even before he was cremated.
Beaufort Memorial Hospital has room for four bodies and Hilton Head Hospital has room for three. Both allow the coroner to store bodies in their morgues, Allen said. Naval Hospital Beaufort has room for four bodies, but only for those in the military.
Space is tight at the Beaufort and Hilton Head hospital morgues because they also are used for hospital patients, who take priority. Staff prefer that the coroner's bodies be removed in 24 to 48 hours, Allen said. State law forbids cremation until at least 30 days after the death.
Whenit takes that much time or longer to locate a family member, bodies are transported for storage at the Medical University of South Carolina -- but the rising number of unclaimed remains statewide has made space tight there, too, according to university spokeswoman Maggie Diebolt.
"We have seen an increase," Diebolt said. "And we have the capacity to store more than 100 bodies."
Allen thinks a county morgue would be the best solution. He researched refrigeratorunits and contacted coroners in Jasper, Charleston, Richland and Aiken counties for advice about the project.
"We just don't have storage here," Allen said. "The cooperation of local governments and hospitals in the county is helpful, but there is a sense of urgency to do more."
<strong>A PLACE TO REST IN PEACE
</strong>
Sad stories such as Stacey's abound in Allen's line of work, but he also handles cases in which remains once thought to be unclaimed and unwanted find their way to a proper resting place.
After searching for the family of an elderly veteran, Allen's office arranged to have the man's remains buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery with full military honors. Weeks later, the man's children realized their father had died and came to town. Horton was there as they stood at his grave.
"There are happy endings," Horton said.
And there could be more of those endings if the county had a pauper's cemetery, Allen said. Aiken County, for example, holds a ceremony once a year in which unclaimed remains are given a pauperburial.
"We just need to look and see if we can find a parcel of county-owned land that won't be used for anything else where we can dispose of the remains," Allen said.
County administrator Gary Kubic supports the idea of a morgue and potter's field and wants to work with local hospitals and other agencies to make it happen -- in compliance with all forensic and medical standards and with an eye toward sensitivity and respect for the dead.
The project is still in its preliminary stage, but county staff members are exploring possibilities, he said.
"We're headed that way," Kubic said. "Nobody likes to think about it, but it is a part of our services."