Coroner sees increase in number of unclaimed bodies
BOYD COUNTY, Ky. (WSAZ) -- When an older woman passed away in a hotel in Boyd County, coroner Mark Hammond was tasked with trying to find her next of kin.
Through the help of Kentucky State Police intelligence, they found an old tax bill that tied her to Arizona.
“We followed that lead and [were] able to find family,” he said. “They had been looking for her for thirty years. She had a mental illness and she just up and left one day. They had no clue where she was.”
Not every case ends up that way. Twice in the last several weeks, he’s had to take to social media to try and find family for someone who has passed.
“Mental illness plays a huge role in this area and a lot of people don’t see that on a daily basis and that’s becoming more and more prevalent too,” Hammond said.
Something else becoming more prevalent, homelessness.
“Ashland has a lot of homeless [people] and lower end hotels cater to those people,” Hammond told WSAZ. “What ends up happening a lot of time, there is no next of kin paperwork that we can find.”
All of those factors adding up and forcing the morgue to capacity.
Hammond says the county morgue can hold 14 bodies, but they’ve reached their limits several times recently, leading them to borrow a cooler.
In December alone, after weeks of not being able to track down a loved one, several people were buried in the county cemetery.
He says a man in Massachusetts contacted them after receiving a life insurance bill regarding his father. The son wasn’t aware of his father’s passing, but was able to locate his father’s body in Boyd County, and have him exhumed to bring him back to be properly buried closer to family.
Hammond tells WSAZ a normal case takes about 10 hours to complete. But if there isn’t identification on a body, or no known next-of-kin, they can spend more than 40 hours working to track down family.
“It is a big addiction area, so we do have a lot of overdoses,” said Hammond. “But since the pandemic hit too, we have a lot of people that are dying at home and somebody comes in and finds them, which contributes to our caseload.”
Sometimes next-of kin are not interested in taking responsibility for an individual. In that case, the county has set aside money in its budget to handle those situations.
“If we get a decedent that say a family member is found but they still don’t want to claim the decedent, we get them to sign off on a cremation, that saves a little bit of money and get the ashes to them if they want, if not it goes to the cemetery.”
Local funeral homes rotate and help offer discounted services as a way to support the community.
“The local funeral homes play a major role in helping us,” he said. “They pay a certain price and cut the county a huge deal, they lose money but it’s a huge community service.”
It’s a job Hammond takes a lot of pride in, ensuring that no one ever leaves this world alone.
“That’s a big part of our job here, not only to determine cause and manner of death, that’s only one little part of the job, it’s following that case all the way through to the end and giving that family closure that they need,” Hammond told WSAZ.
For veterans, the coroner’s office works to track down the proper paperwork and verification so that they can bury those individuals at the veteran cemetery in the Industrial Parkway.
“Anyone in the military, our veterans, we have a lot of homeless veterans in this area, so we do what we can,” he said.
Hammond says his office will exhaust every resource to help identify and connect loved ones and family members and provide closure.
“The best thing I can give a family is reunification. They may not have seen these people in twenty or thirty years, to reunite somebody like that, it’s extremely important,” Hammond said.
The agency responded to more than 300 calls in 2021, but was also called out to scenes and locations nearly 700 times.
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