As unclaimed bodies mount in North Carolina, funeral homes urge pre-planning

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- The North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner continues to be in possession of a mounting number of unclaimed bodies long after their death investigations have been completed.

The key responsibility for the OCME is to investigate deaths that are sudden, unexpected and violent; the autopsy is what hopefully provides answers to a grieving family which then claims that body before a final goodbye. As of last month, 191 unclaimed decedents remained in the state's possession, including 76 since January 2020.

Officially, North Carolina law defines an "unclaimed body" as a decedent whose known relatives or contacts cease communications with the OCME for at least five days after becoming aware of the death investigation. An unclaimed body can also be a decedent who has been in the possession of the OCME for at least 10 days and there hasn't been any contact with next of kin.

According to Dr. Michelle Aurelius, Chief Medical Officer, only a fraction of the unclaimed are unidentified -- meaning the vast majority of unclaimed decedents have known names and records.

The protocols as defined by law require unclaimed decedents to be cremated and then the ashes released in a "dignified manner" off the North Carolina coast. The state pays for the entire process.

A memo from the NC Office of Administrative Hearings further explains that the ashes must remain in the OCME's possession -- sitting in boxes on those shelves -- for at least three years before being dispersed into the ocean.

There are a variety of reasons that may lead to a person's remains being unclaimed, including estranged family, opioids, homelessness and COVID-19. Another emerging rationale, according to officials, families either unable or unwilling to pay for the rising cost of a funeral.

"In anything you do there is a cost," Don Brown, a funeral home director in Pitt County and Chairman of the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service, said. "Just like buying gas. Today it may be $3 but tomorrow it may be $4. Pre-planning is very important and it takes away the stress most of all."

Like most things in life, death is emerging as big business in the United States -- an estimated $16 billion industry.

For families, the stress of paying for a funeral quickly overshadows the feelings of grief.

New analysis from the National Funeral Directors Association shows a median price of $7,640 for a funeral, viewing and burial. A funeral, viewing and cremation, meanwhile, isn't much cheaper at $6,645.

These costs, meanwhile, do not include cemetery fees, gravestones, flowers or even an obituary.

By comparison, the NFDA's General Price List Study shows a median cost of $5,180 in 2000 - a 47% increase. A federal review of price data is even more astounding: The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) shows the rate of funeral expenses rising almost twice as fast as consumer prices for all items. From December 1986 to September 2017, funeral expenses rose 227.1%, while most other items jumped 123.4%.

Still, a breakdown of costs from the NC Board of Funeral Service shows an incredibly low margin for funeral homes as the cost of supplies, including lumber and personal-protective-equipment, continue to soar.

According to Brown, the board is working with North Carolina's 700 funeral homes to help families prioritize pre-planning end of life decisions. Don Brown Funeral Home, moreover, is even offering services online which Brown said helps people avoid an unnecessary trip to an uncomfortable setting.

"Every since COVID we're learned how to adjust our sales. I've had to deal with death in my own family, and I know how overwhelming it is."
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