The unclaimed dead
Most years, the Region of Waterloo foots the bill for funerals for a handful of people whose bodies have not been claimed; ‘We take them in and look after them.’
WATERLOO REGION — Bodies of the unclaimed dead lie in unmarked graves throughout the region’s cemeteries.
You could walk by one of them and not know that the person buried deep in the ground died alone one day, without a relative, friend or community to take responsibility for them.
It’s not often that someone dies completely alone. In Waterloo Region, it is estimated that a handful of people are buried by the regional municipality each year because no one else came forward to claim them.
Michelle Glendinning likes to think no one is truly unclaimed.
“We claim the unclaimed people. We take them in and look after them,” said the local funeral director at Henry Walser Funeral Home in Kitchener.
The local funeral home will always host a small service for the unclaimed dead before they are buried.
“I think it’s important these people are treated with respect,” Glendinning said.
Exhaustive efforts are made to find a loved one who is willing to take on the task of burying the dead. Sometimes it can take weeks to find someone, but every once in a while, no one will come forward.
In 2018, there were 421 people who died and were not claimed by a relative or friend, according to preliminary data from the province’s Office of the Chief Coroner. The number of unclaimed dead across the province has been slowly rising, almost doubling since 2012.
The reasons are unknown, but some like Cheryl Mahyr, issues manager with the chief coroner’s office, speculate it could be because of population growth and a rise in aging adults.
“There is an assumption that all unclaimed persons led an isolated and lonely life,” she told the Record in an email.
She said that is true in many cases, but sometimes family members or friends can’t afford to pay for a funeral so they don’t come forward.
The Region of Waterloo covers the cost of funerals in cases where no one steps in to foot the bill, or when a friend or relative is not found or when a family can’t afford a funeral.
There is an assumption that only family members can claim a body, but that isn’t true, Mahyr said.
“Claimants can be anyone from friends to colleagues to neighbours. Claimants can also include institutions such as churches.”
Glendinning said in her 28 years of experience as a funeral director, she has seen cases where a community or church group will take over the funeral of someone who died alone, but it is rare.
“Not many people have a desire to pay for somebody’s funeral that they are not close to,” she said.
The search for a friend or relative to take responsibility of the unclaimed individual can be a lengthy one that involves many agencies and organizations.
Local coroners and hospital social workers are often the first ones tasked with the search while the unclaimed
‘‘ When we have one person come to a funeral or a handful of people who come to a funeral that just speaks volumes to why we do what we do.
Funeral director Henry Walser Funeral Home
individual’s body waits at a local hospital morgue. They may contact social and religious organizations as well as shelters. Sometimes they reach out to police departments for help or check in with Veterans Affairs and Aboriginal Affairs offices for any information they can find about the person.
They will also turn to the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee for help as well.
The provincial office will take over the search if the deceased person’s estate was sizable ($10,000 or more after debts are paid). They will also take charge of planning a funeral and pay for the expenses with the person’s assets. If there is an investigation into the cause of the person’s death, then the chief coroner’s office will do the search.
If a friend or relative willing to take responsibility of the funeral is not found, the chief coroner’s office will sign off on a warrant giving the Region of Waterloo permission to bury the body.
Once the region gets involved, regional staff will randomly select a local funeral home to take charge of the burial.
Henry Walser Funeral Home will often get this call. When it is notified of an unclaimed body, staff will publish an obituary and plan a little service for the individual, even though they are not required to.
A chapel or grave site service is planned and attended by funeral staff, who will often say a few words and non-denominational prayers over the body. Surprisingly, someone always shows up to these funerals.
“We have never had a funeral where no one has come,” Glendinning said.
“It could be the chaplain from the hospital, or a nurse, it could be anyone that connected themselves to this person. And they probably know that there is nobody and feel the compassion to join us for a funeral.”
She said it gives funeral home staff an opportunity finally learn something about the person they have prepared for burial, even if only one person read the obituary and decided to attend.
“When we have one person come to a funeral or a handful of people who come to a funeral that just speaks volumes to why we do what we do,” Glendinning said.
The region gives out about $5,000 per funeral and that covers the cost of interment and a very basic burial. It is provincial policy to bury unclaimed individuals and the region’s funds do not cover grave markers, so the graves are always unmarked.
Funerals for low-income individuals who were not on social assistance are also paid for by the region. In 2018, the region covered the cost for 112 funerals for the poor; the unclaimed dead probably accounted for just a handful of that total but the region does not keep track of those burials separately.
The region and province split the cost of funerals for people on social assistance.
Rob Wintonyk, a funeral director at Erb and Good Funeral Home, said the home has had two funerals for unclaimed individuals in recent years.
“It used to be more common many years ago, but not so much anymore with the kind of information we have access to,” he said.
“There are some years when we don’t have any.” Wintonyk said it is heartwarming to see how communities and local agencies will step in to help locate a relative or friend, and oftentimes an unclaimed body sitting in a hospital morgue for days or weeks will eventually be claimed by a loved one.
Sometimes, families refuse to take possession of a body because they can’t afford a funeral or just because they don’t want to.
“There are circumstances where family dynamics really come into play,” Wintonyk said, adding that it is rare for people to die completely alone.
But when a person is truly alone and unclaimed, Wintonyk said his funeral home will do as much as it can to ensure the individual is buried with respect and dignity.
“Everyone deserves a decent burial,” he said.
Michelle Glendinning, funeral director at Henry Walser Funeral Home in Kitchener, says it is important to treat people who have died and whose bodies have not been claimed, with respect.