Maybe you or someone you know has an estranged family member – someone the family hasn’t heard from in years. Either by default or design the ties that hold that family connection together have broken.
I know there is such a broken connection in my family.
So, what happens when that estranged family member passes? How will the family know? Who will be responsible for laying the remains to rest?
It’s a powerful image, and one that resonates deeply with me. I have a particular sensitivity to any person who is the lost, the only, the last, or the forgotten. And to imagine that role played out in death, which is a person’s final role, seems all the more heartbreaking.
So, my eyes went wide, my ears perked up, and I sat up straight when I met Janis Martin, the Director of Unclaimed Persons, at the Minnesota State Genealogy Conference. She is a passionate advocate for a cause that reached out and gripped her from the pages of a magazine and ultimately changed her life’s trajectory.
She shared that this 100% volunteer, non-profit organization works with Coroners and Medical Examiners nationwide to locate next of kin. Some have described this as a “virtual epidemic” of unclaimed bodies left at coroners’ offices, where the next of kin are never found. Martin said that Los Angeles County alone has 3,000 unclaimed bodies per month.
Often coroners, who are over taxed and stretched with their normal workload, spend weeks or months searching for a family member or known associate to take claim to the remains but are unsuccessful. Further, Martin related that it is rare for a county to have on staff a dedicated genealogist or researcher to address this need. With new cases coming in regularly, older cases simply are left unsolved.
Genealogists At Work
Enter the network of genealogists under the Unclaimed Persons organization. When called upon by coroners or medical examiners (they aren’t equipped to handle requests from private citizens for help with missing persons), they turn to their genealogy researching skills and public resources to identify a missing family member. Cases are assigned to a team, and they collaborate sharing research ideas, techniques, and resources. Some cases are solved in as little as 24-hours, others take weeks or months and still some are never solved. The Unclaimed Persons organization has taken on about 600 cases since its founding in 2008, and approximately 400 are solved.
Martin tells that there are strict guidelines and protocols for how a case is handled. The genealogists are prohibited to have any contact with the family. When the research is complete, a report is written and submitted to the Coroner or Medical Examiner. For the Unclaimed Persons organization that concludes their engagement in the process. Martin tells that on occasion they hear back from the Coroner with feedback on how the story ended or an explanation on why the person was unclaimed. Sometimes they get a “thank you” from the family relayed by the Coroner. “That’s really our only reward,” said Martin.
The genealogists are only allowed to use public resources. Databases such as www.ancestry.com, www.familysearch.org, or the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) are allowed, public access research tools. This protects all parties concerned. Incidentally, my conversation started with Martin over the SSDI, and the legal challenges in the courts over the public and timely access to its records. No doubt any impediment to access to it would and will impair the Unclaimed Persons genealogists in their work.
Another strict rule the Unclaimed Persons follow is the need for a name at a minimum of the person under investigation. They are not in a position to identified John or Jane Does. Even super-genealogists have their limits!
Who are These Genealogy Sleuths?
The volunteers don’t have to be professional genealogists; however, having a strong understanding of genealogy research tools and techniques certainly helps. There are about 400 genealogists in the network. This is an all-virtual network, so the genealogists work from their homes across the country connecting solely online. There is no brick-and-mortar infrastructure or overhead to maintain. Originally founded by famed genealogist, Megan Smolenyak, the organization has taken on a life of its own and is now under the capable guidance of Martin.
Want to Know More?
If you would like to know more about this amazing organization, please visit their website. I hope you do visit the site – maybe even volunteer, because, as they say, “every life is worth remembering.”