SPRINGFIELD — It's been years since a formal count, but officials now estimate the number of people who have died in Greene County with their remains unclaimed, sitting in a cabinet, is now about 200.
The last count at Springfield Mortuary Service showed 182, but that number continues to grow as more of the county's deceased are not tended to by family.
Compared to the number of deaths in the county in a year, the number of unclaimed bodies is relatively low, said Tom Van De Berg, chief investigator in the county's medical examiner office.
But, unfortunately, the phenomenon of remains left unclaimed is still more common than many realize, said Jennifer Simmons of Springfield Mortuary Service. The company is located in a one-story building on Patterson Avenue and contracts with the county to transport bodies from the scene of a death to a location for investigations.
"There's no typical case," Simmons said. "Every person's story is different."
In some cases, the county can't find the person's family. Other times, the family won't, or can't, pay for services. In some rare cases, a body can't be identified.
In late 2006, a homeless man, about 60 years old, came into a Springfield hospital after suffering a stroke.
He didn't have any identification or give the hospital his name. He told the first responder to "call me old man."
But officials made note of his physical appearance — no teeth and his right arm amputated at the elbow, where he wore a hook prosthesis instead.
Officials had fingerprints, but they didn't match any databases in the area, Van De Berg said.
The body stayed at Springfield Mortuary for about six months before it had to be cremated to make space; the cremated remains stayed there for years.
Just last month, the man's daughter was searching on the Missouri State Highway Patrol website for information when she came across the description of the man she believed was her father.
She contacted officials and directed them to Texas, where they were able to get a positive match on the fingerprints. After more than seven years, John Doe was identified and his remains were sent home with family, Van De Berg said.
But for remains to suddenly be claimed is very rare.
Greene County's cache of ashes grows.
Greene County Administrator Tim Smith said there's no solution to the problem.
He said it often comes down to families refusing to take care of those who die, so the bodies are essentially dropped on the county.
Smith said Springfield Mortuary Service will take care of the bodies and bill the county in some situations, for example for a cremation. Simmons said the company only sends a bill if officials specifically ask for a cremation, so the cost to cremate most of the unclaimed bodies ultimately falls on the mortuary.
"We appreciate what they do," Smith said.
Simmons said families often don't realize they're responsible for the costs and plans for disposing of the body when a loved one dies.
"They assume there are county or state funds to cover the expense," she said. "They're kind of in shock. They think, 'Who pays for this?'"
That problem can be compounded by the difficult, emotional time a family can go through.
Simmons said it can be helpful for a person, before his or her death, to appoint someone to make decisions so the resting place of the body does not become a family dispute.
State law provides a way for a mortuary to dispose of unclaimed remains, but Simmons said her place of business, like many funeral homes, does not want to do that.
"We want to give people every opportunity to claim family members," she said.
It doesn't create a space issue — basically, all of the unclaimed remains are cremated.
Simmons said bodies are kept for a certain amount of time before the mortuary gets permission from the county to go ahead with cremation.
Dori Burke, the Boone County medical examiner investigator and past president of the Missouri Coroners' and Medical Examiners' Association, said unclaimed remains are a problem across the state.
"I know we have them here in Boone and Callaway counties," she said.
She said having remains go unclaimed isn't common, but she said the numbers do add up.
Don Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, agreed that the accumulation of remains is a common issue across the state, though he didn't have numbers.
"It's mostly anecdotal," he said.
He said the state law was revised in recent years to make it easier to dispose of unclaimed remains, but most funeral directors prefer to keep them.
"I know most funeral directors feel this way, and I do too," he said. "You never know when someone's going to come back to claim someone."
He said as long as funeral homes have the space to hold the remains, that's typically the route they go.
"I believe I've seen lives saved because someone was either able to obtain a family member's remains or see where they were interred," he said. "It allows them to go through the grieving process and say goodbye."
Burke keeps the unclaimed remains in her office. She said she has had 40 over about an 18-year period. Like others, she said she doesn't want to dispose of them — just in case. Just recently, a woman who was young when her father died came to claim his remains after several years.
Storing the remains is just part of the process. Otto said the cost of cremation is rising, and while he said he legally couldn't keep information on average costs, he said it's "not inexpensive."
The National Cremation Research Council estimates the cost of cremation services to be more than $1,000.