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What Happens to an Indigent Person After Death?

Ali Katz


There are so many people in our midst who are considered indigent. We see them on street corners, in parks, and where homeless people congregate. We may wonder how they get by from day to day. But do you ever wonder what happens when an indigent person dies?

Cities, counties, and states have processes in place to provide cremation and burial services for people in their communities who lack financial resources. It is an aspect of our civilized society  that often goes unnoticed.

For example, in the largest metropolis in the United States–New York City–about 1,500 indigent persons die each year and are processed through the city’s system. The deceased are buried on Hart Island in the Bronx Bureau of the city. Such burial sites are commonly known as “potter’s fields.” Hart Island was first used for this purpose was in 1868. It currently holds the remains of around one million people. Before that time, potter’s fields were located at today’s sites of Washington Square, Madison Square, and the New York City Public Library.

One of the travesties of the handling of remains of indigent persons is that little to no records are kept as to where the remains of any one person can be found. Families of the deceased often cannot gain access to the burial grounds, and even if they can, the graves are often not marked.

In Washington D.C., unclaimed bodies are held for 30 days, after which they are cremated. Local funeral homes performing the service are supposed to bury the remains such that they can be retrieved if necessary. However, the reality is that most are placed in regional cemeteries in unmarked plots.

Los Angeles, like New York, processes about 1,500 bodies per year. They are held for 30 days, after which they are cremated. Those remains are kept for three years in the event someone comes forward to claim them. After that, the remains are buried in a common plot marked only with the year of death.

Different Approaches

In Maryland and Cook County, Illinois, bodies of the deceased are donated to the state anatomical boards where they are distributed for medical research. Cook County holds the body initially for 14 days, and then for an additional 60 in the event a claimant comes forward. If a family member objects to the anatomical donation but does not wish to take control of the body, the county will pay for a burial or cremation.

The most extreme handling of indigent deaths may be in San Diego County, California where family members of unclaimed bodies are put on notice that it is a violation of law to fail to make final arrangements for a family member. The County advises that if a body is not claimed, it will be cremated and the ashes dispersed into the sea.