Caring for the Unidentified Dead at the Orange County Coroner's Office

3 min
Sometimes families can’t afford the costs associated with claiming their loved one, which can get expensive quickly. Aside from transportation fees, there’s the death certificate, paying for cremation or burial, and other costs associated with saying goodbye. (Getty Images)

Note: A link in this story about identification of John and Jane Does contains photos that may be disturbing.

In 2017, at least 195 homeless people -- and probably over 200 -- died in Orange County. While most were claimed by their families, at least 17 were not.

These are the people who the county classifies as "indigent," meaning their families could not afford or refused to claim their bodies.

“They have no estate, they have no assets, these are just people living day to day,” says Richard Rodriguez. He’s been working at the Orange County Coroner’s Office for 37 years.

"There’s just no family. There’s no one that’s willing to take responsibility to move forward with this person’s final destination."

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Just to be clear, not every person found dead in Orange County goes to the coroner’s office.

There’s a long list of reasons why a body might end up here. For example, if the death is associated with a crime. If they die of starvation, contagious disease or a drug overdose. Whatever the reason, once they’re wheeled into the coroner’s Santa Ana office, the work begins.

The first step is identification. It starts with running fingerprints and then, if the deceased is still unidentifiable, looks to other clues.

“Scars or tattoos or circumstances surrounding the death of this individual,” says Rodriguez. “There may be people who know him, maybe offer some guidance.”

If that doesn’t work, there are dental records Rodriguez and his colleagues can use. They can search through hospital, arrest or DMV records. But finding out who they are? That’s just step one.

The coroner’s office tries to piece together what happened at the end of each person’s life.

Then, they try to find the families.

They’re obligated to search. According to the coroner’s office, they “can’t just take the burden” of the remains on themselves.

But sometimes it can be difficult to get a family to agree to claim their loved ones.

"It can be 20 or 30 some-odd years before they even had contact,” explains Rodriguez. “And a lot of times we see because of their history of either drug abuse ... problems that they have, a lot of them are mental issues sometimes, and some people just prefer to just live on their own and don’t want to be exposed or known ... it’s just in their chemistry, I think.”

Sometimes families can’t afford the costs associated with claiming their loved one, which can get expensive quickly. Aside from transportation fees, there’s the death certificate, paying for cremation or burial, and other costs associated with saying goodbye.

Once a body is declared "indigent," it's turned over to a mortuary. Local mortuaries apply to be part of the program that contracts with the county and operate on one-month rotations, taking the indigent dead to their final resting place for $450 per person.

Alfonso Gonzalez is the owner, funeral director and embalmer for Reflections Funeral Home in Anaheim. His mortuary is currently on rotation with the county.

Once they get the call that there’s an indigent death, they make the arrangements: Bodies are cremated and the remains held for two years.

After those two years “we charter a boat,” says Gonzalez. “The captain and mates will take out the cremated remains and he’ll have a ceremony in private to scatter those cremated remains at sea.”

The entire journey can take a couple of years: from cold storage, to an urn, to that final trip out to sea.

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