Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Happens If You Die Alone And Unclaimed? You Might End Up In Puget Sound

Will James
In an Aug. 30, 2017, ceremony on Puget Sound, Pierce County staffers scattered the ashes of residents whose bodies went unclaimed

If you die, and nobody claims your body, it goes to your local county government.

Eventually, those cremated remains pile up, and it’s up to county officials to find them a resting place.

It's an oddly personal task for a local bureaucracy, and each one handles it differently.

In Pierce County, Medical Examiner Thomas Clark started a tradition three years ago: He takes some of his staff onto a sheriff’s patrol boat, and they scatter the ashes in Puget Sound, at a remote spot where Mount Rainier is visible on the horizon.

"The natural beauty, the quiet," Clark said. "It's just a wonderful setting in which to do something like this."

Fifty-five people were laid to rest in the most recent ceremony, on a clear afternoon in late August. 

They varied in age, ethnic background, and living circumstances. All of them lacked a relative, friend or church willing and able to pick up their remains. 

Elyse Fairweather, a hospice chaplain for CHI Franciscan Health, read the name of each person, followed by their age and date of death.

For many, it was the only information she knew. 

"We do not know their hobbies, what brought them joy and hope, nor do we know their faith traditions or religious inclinations," she said in her opening remarks. 

One by one, county staffers poured the ashes from plastic bags into the water. Fairweather rang a bell for each one, a tradition she said crosses belief systems. 

Credit Will James / KNKX
Pierce County staffers unload cremated remains of unclaimed residents from storage containers

One of the people handling the ashes was Rich OBrien, the county's lead death investigator. Part of his job is tracking down relatives who might claim a body. 

"This kind of closes the books for me," he said of the ceremony. "Because most, actually all of them, I did go through at one point or another to make sure we did everything." 

Even when his office is able to track down family, he said, they're not always willing to pick up the remains. 

"That happens quite a bit, actually," he said. "Unfortunately it does. But we don't judge individuals or anything like that because we don't know everybody's total predicament." 

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier took turns pouring ashes off the rear platform of the boat.

"In today's world, when people think of their government as detached, dispassionate and impersonal, I think this shows the Pierce County medical examiner and his staff taking the opportunity to make something incredibly personal," he said. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.