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 Record - - Front Page - ANAM LATIF Water­loo Re­gion Record

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.

MICHELLE GLENDINNING

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.

PETER LEE WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD

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.

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