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Unclaimed remains in Marion County nearly double, part of growing issue

Each year, the Marion County Coroner's Office handles dozens of unclaimed remains cases.

INDIANAPOLIS — On a sunny day in September, volunteers carried 173 unclaimed remains to their final resting place. They were part of a special ceremony in Marion County for people who have been identified, but did not have family or friends able or willing to claim their remains. 

"The remaining descendants are still at our office,” said Marion County Deputy Coroner Alfie McGinty.

Back in September, she reported there were more than 100 additional unclaimed remains. McGinty hopes to hold a ceremony each year in the future.

A solution for a problem that 13 Investigates learned is growing. Each year, the Marion County Coroner's Office handles dozens of unclaimed remains cases.

In 2021, the office listed 81 unclaimed remains in its annual report, nearly double the 45 cases it reported in 2020.

Unclaimed, despite efforts to try and locate family and friends. Some of the remain sat on a shelf for years, even decades.

This past fall, the ashes of 173 people were wrapped in maroon, blue and green bags with gold-colored drawstrings. Volunteers carried the remains to their final resting place - an ossuary at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens in Indianapolis.

One of the bags contained the ashes of Larry Lineback.

"He drank himself to death, but he had a good time doing it,” said friend Dale Greeson with a laugh. “I had a great time with him."

Credit: WTHR
Larry Lineback’s remains were buried with 172 other people who not claimed from the coroner’s office.

Greeson came to honor his friend. He remembered when Larry died back in 2015. Then he thought family just kept the funeral arrangements quiet, now he suspects there was no family to take care of arrangements.

“His mom and dad were already passed, so I don't think there was anybody,” Greeson said. 

Stacy Brake attended the ceremony to remember her classmate, Manly Wright. She didn’t have a recent picture and instead showed 13News pictures from their yearbook. Both were part of the Carmel High School Class of 1979.

“I remember him,” Brake said. “I just can't claim that I was friends with him.”

Credit: WTHR
Manly Wright died in Marion County and was buried in a ceremony with other people whose remains were not claimed. A former classmate points to his photo as part of the Carmel High School Class of 1979.

She does remember that he was quiet and kind. She has no idea why he went unclaimed for more than three years.

While Manly and others remains were never claimed, that’s not the case for everyone.

Over in Hamilton County, sisters Deborah Denney and Denise Stafford died in 2012. Deputy Coroner Ashley Taylor found a family friend willing to spread their ashes in December 2022.

Credit: Hamilton County Coroner's Office/WTHR graphic
Sisters Deborah Denney and Denise Stafford both died in 2012.

Taylor said she spends weeks, months, even years searching on behalf of the unclaimed.

Hamilton County Coroner Jeff Jellison said that's important.

"These are people and they don't deserve to sit on a shelf,” Jellison said.

But many still do.

13 Investigates reached out to all 92 coroners' offices in Indiana to try to estimate how many people go unclaimed across the state. We learned some counties, including Marion County, report several cases a year. Allen County reported 37 unclaimed remains over 11 years.

Some smaller coroners' offices reported none or just one or two a year. Others reported not having good records to know for sure how many they’ve had over the years.

During this investigation, 13News learned no one is tracking unclaimed remains statewide.

As it turns out, the issue is not confined to coroners' offices. Funeral homes also carry hundreds of unclaimed or abandoned remains, according to Andy Clayton, executive director and CEO of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association.

Clayton said the issue is growing he believes better communication and exchange of information among hospitals, coroners offices and funeral homes could help.

He also blames our changing culture for more and more people going unclaimed. He said there are weaker family and community bonds now, despite multiple ways to stay connected.

"We've just seen people not want to take the responsibility of caring for the remains,” he said.

"Sometimes, the decedent has burned their bridges with their loved one,” said Nicole Fields with Dixon Memorial Chapel.

Fields said Dixon Memorial Chapel is small, but the funeral home still has several abandoned remains behind closed doors. She said, sometimes, family members will start the process and then stop communicating after cremation.

Credit: WTHR
Dixon Memorial Chapel on the west side of Indianapolis is caring for several unclaimed remains.

Funeral homes and coroners’ offices tell 13 Investigates family strife, apathy and money are some of the reasons people go unclaimed.

"Sometimes people don't have families, or the families don't have the resources,” McGinty said.     

Help is available for people who qualify. Statewide, township trustees distribute about $2 million in funeral assistance a year. McGinty said her office is looking at ways to help poor families navigate that process.

Each township trustee has a different application process. They also offer different amounts of money to be used for funeral, cremation, and burial expenses.

Credit: WTHR
Typically a number of small containers of ashes are placed in vaults like these before being buried in an unmarked grave.

Marion County’s nine townships assisted with the burial of 134 people just in 2021. The amount of money provided to each family varies depending on the township. The townships report the size of the deceased and whether they’re getting buried or cremated also impacts the amount of assistance provided. These funds cannot be supplemented.

However, state and federal funding set aside for veterans and Medicaid recipients can be supplemented. Indiana lawmakers are currently considering a bill that will allow friends and relatives to be able to raise and contribute more money to supplement funeral assistance.

Fields said the assistance doesn’t cover all the all the costs, but funeral homes still work with families.

"It's just the right thing to do,” she said.

Her business also believes burying the unclaimed is the right thing to do.

When enough remains are accumulated, they reach out to cemeteries to discuss burial options.

Credit: WTHR
Sutherland Park Cemetery in Indianapolis is the final resting place for some unclaimed remains.

Ken Massey with Sutherland Park Cemetery showed us where he recently placed about 20 unclaimed remains. He said the names of the deceased are recorded before being put into a cement vault and buried in an unmarked grave.

"If someone were to come and say, ‘Where's Uncle Joe?’ we know exactly where he is," Massey said.

He said he’s had family come looking before, but it doesn’t happen often.

Coroners and funeral homes both say talking about funeral and burial plans with loved ones can help reduce people’s chances of going unclaimed. They also suggest people make cremation or burial arrangements in advance to make the process easier for grieving family members and friends.

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