OLYMPIA, Wash. – When someone dies in a bad economy, often their loved ones don’t have the money to bury them.
The refrigeration unit at the Thurston County Coroner's Office stood empty Friday morning. But more and more often, it houses someone falling through the cracks of society -- the " indigent unclaimed."
Sometimes they're in there for months as investigators look to find a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling -- any relative, or even someone with a legitimate tie who can pay for a proper burial.
Increasingly, it's the county that's picking up the tab when the leads turn cold or families turn away.
Coroner Gary Warnock says, increasingly, the down economy is playing a role.
In one case he says a man disappeared after his wife passed away at the hospital. He left no forwarding address. The couple was already in the process of being evicted from their home when the wife became ill.
"These people belong to somebody and I think it's a sad story," said Warnock.
He reads off a list of narratives from reports.
"The mother indicated she lives on a fixed income, and could not take financial responsibility for her son,” says one.
"Assets on property included a fish boat and no living next of kin." says another.
The numbers aren't big, but they are telling and they track the economic decline. In 2008, ThurstonCounty had three unclaimed indigent bodies. In 2009, that number doubled to six, and doubled again in 2010 to 12. With a few weeks left in 2011, the number stands at 13.
It costs the county $550 to have a funeral home put that person to rest. That includes cremation and having the remains uried in a masoleum in a way they could be one day be retrieved and turned over to family if somebody were to show up to claim them. Warnock says that $550 figure is relatively new after funeral homes appealed to the county because their costs weren't being covered at $350.
Other counties including Grays Harbor, Benton and Snohomish are seeing increases. Snohomish county had 16 cases in 2008 and 32 so far in 2011.
Under state law, relatives of the next of kin are legally responsible for covering the costs of burial and Warnock is hearing of cases where counties are going after relatives in small claims court to try to recover costs. Warnock says in the cases he sees, the relatives are poor. If the relatives can even be found, the costs to pursue a case would likely exceed any return to the county.
Warnock says he budgets the future based on the trends he sees, and he is planning on at least 13 more unclaimed bodies in 2012.