Unclaimed remains follow convoluted path to rest

Monday, November 30, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

SEDALIA — Ralph Toliver was laid to rest this week three years after he died.

Toliver's remains have spent the past three years inside a box locked in a cabinet inside the Pettis County coroner's office.

"Well Ralph, it's been a long journey, but we finally got you here. ... He's finally at rest," said friend Sid Mabry during a graveside service.

Toliver died at age 54 of a heart attack in his home on Nov. 16, 2006. Word has it he had his hand raised and held palm-up to the sky, a gesture he was known to make while in church. Toliver spent 30 days on a slab in a morgue. Finally, morgue workers contacted Pettis County Coroner Robert "Skip" Smith.

"In that particular case, the county just had to do something," he said.

Toliver had purchased a plot in Crown Hill Cemetery next to the graves of his parents, where about 20 friends and family gathered Thursday to bid their final farewell. But, nobody stepped forward to pay for the cremation or funeral arrangements.

Mabry has persisted in seeing his friend buried, and is providing the headstone.

A mortuary cremated Toliver's remains, which cost a couple hundred dollars. Smith was able to make contact with several family members and friends.

"There wasn't anyone who wanted to step forward to take responsibility," Smith said.

Harvey Pace was a longtime friend of Toliver's and helped him study for his driver's license test, which Toliver passed after a fifth try.

"He was financially destitute," Pace said. "People said they'd give something (to pay for the cremation) and never did. ... He was destitute in life and he was destitute in death."

Recently, Toliver's brother signed a letter granting permission to release the remains to Mabry. Toliver's remains were longest kept by the coroner, Smith.

"Once they're cremated, there's nothing that says we can't hold those in case family changes their mind," Smith said. "I want to give that family every opportunity to come back. They belong to the family, in my eyes, so we want to give them every opportunity."

What happened to Toliver could, and does, happen to others.

Smith has seen an increase in the number of remains that go unclaimed. Part of the reason is that coroner cases have increased due to a law that expanded the circumstances of deaths in which a coroner is required, including nursing home and hospice deaths. A poor economy also could contribute to the rise, even though many local funeral homes are willing to work with families on payment plans in order to make arrangements, Smith said.

About a dozen bodies were unclaimed in the past year. More than a dozen more cadavers were initially unclaimed, but Smith was able to eventually track down family or friends.

"First we try to exhaust every means of trying to track down the family or friends; try to find someone who will take responsibility," Smith said.

State law allows the coroner the right of sepulcher, or the authority to arrange for burial or dispose of remains, after a body has gone unclaimed for 10 days. If Smith is unable to find family or friends, his first option is to donate the cadaver to a medical school. The body is picked up and cremated at no cost to the county.

"They have a cemetery with a record of where the remains are," Smith said.

Some cadavers are unacceptable by medical schools if too much time passes between the death and discovery of the body, the person exceeds a weight limit or had a contagious disease.

"The ones they won't accept, the county has to have cremated," Smith said.

Once the body is cremated, Smith continues to search for family or friends, often placing an advertisement in the newspaper.

"We don't want to rush to judgment (about the disposal of remains) because ultimately the family has legal say," Smith said. "We try to hold remains in our office for a significant period of time in case family comes forward."

The county tries to recoup cremation expenses whenever family or friends are found later. So far, Smith has yet to have to bury remains.

"The county is not in the funeral business," Smith said. "We get put in that situation sometimes, but we are not in the funeral business. ... I think the county should be reimbursed because it's not up to the county taxpayers to front the bill."

How do people protect themselves from a situation similar to Toliver's?

Planning now is the key, said Sedalia attorney Scott Gardner. People who want someone other than a family member to handle their funeral arrangements should name someone as the durable power of attorney and designate that person with the right of sepulcher, he said.

"That person will specifically have the power to control what happens to that person's remains," Gardner said.

He also recommends having a funeral plan with a "minister, with a funeral director, not with an attorney, that spells out how you want your funeral to be conducted."

"Equally important, you have some method of paying for it," Gardner said. "You could have an insurance policy made out to your estate for a small amount, probably not over $10,000" depending on the type of funeral wanted.

People should not only document their wishes, but also tell others.

"Any part of your estate plan, have somebody else in your family know about it," Gardner said. "Talk about it with your family. Number one it gets things done and number two it will help assure that your family members will respect what you've done."

Folks should consider estate planning now.

"I don't care what age they are, now," Gardner said of when people should make their plans. "Do you know when you are going to die? Nobody knows that. ... No one knows when that's going to happen and people need that estate planning now."

Some estate planning doesn't necessarily require an attorney. Gardner said he, and most other attorneys, offer a free consultation before providing a price estimate.

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