Cash-Strapped Cities Struggle To Bury Their Unclaimed Dead Detroit, like many other American cities, is so broke it cannot handle the costs of a timely burial for people who die but are not claimed by family members. Some local advocates are using their own resources to help lay the city's poorest to rest.
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Cash-Strapped Cities Struggle To Bury Their Unclaimed Dead

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Cash-Strapped Cities Struggle To Bury Their Unclaimed Dead

Cash-Strapped Cities Struggle To Bury Their Unclaimed Dead

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's talk now about one effect of shrinking government budgets. They're not only changing how some people live, but how spend time after death. In Detroit, funding is so tight, it can year or more before a homeless person is given even a basic pauper's burial. From member station WDET in Detroit, Quinn Klinefelter tells the story of one deceased man's long wait for a final resting place.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: I met T.C. Latham several years ago, panhandling in downtown Detroit. Short, a scraggly beard, bent glasses missing one lens and, for the most part, on the good side of the police.

T.C. LATHAM: I'm a familiar face down here, so they know I'm not going to raise any hell or go crazy or rob anybody or anything.

KLINEFELTER: Tentatively, at first, we became friendly. Latham had an all-too-familiar story.

LATHAM: I got laid off and lost everything, to make a long story short. My unemployment ran out. I burned through my little savings I had - 401(k). And there goes I.

KLINEFELTER: On a good week, Latham would scrounge enough change to rent a cheap hotel room. Last September, at one such cheap hotel, he was found sitting in a straight-backed chair, dead. And more than seven months later, like many other homeless people here, Latham still has not been laid to rest. His body waits in a freezer here at the Wayne County morgue.

ALBERT SAMUELS: We can store over 300 bodies in this facility.

KLINEFELTER: The chief investigator for the Wayne County Medical Examiner, Albert Samuels, is in charge of burying the bodies no one else wants in Detroit. He says there's usually about 100 unclaimed bodies, like Latham's, but only enough combined state and county funding to bury a dozen of them at a time a few times a year. The rest wait.

SAMUELS: We've had people here for a year and a half, two years. So, right now, it's basically an economics thing. There's only so much in the budget - in the state budget, in the county budget - to handle these matters.

KLINEFELTER: Samuels says he hears similar stories from medical examiners across the country.

SAMUELS: Just like we have to take care of the dead, we also have to take care of the living. It's not just Detroit. This is happening all over the country. It's happening in North America. Las Vegas, you go out to Las Vegas, they got the same problem. Milwaukee's got the same problem.

KLINEFELTER: Yet even in tough economic times, some groups find a way to say a final goodbye.


BETSY DEAK: In some places in the world, these bodies would be tossed in ditches with lime.

KLINEFELTER: At Perry's Funeral Home, Betsy Deak organized once-a-month memorial services for unclaimed remains from the morgue, in conjunction with a Detroit church. They cover the cost of the service and offer burial to the county at the cut-rate price of $325 a body.

DEAK: These are called quad-burials. It's the least expensive way to bury. They're buried in a wooden box - buried individually in a wooden box and stacked four inside a grave.

KLINEFELTER: Deak says some aspects of human dignity transcend business concerns.

DEAK: The first time I held a file in my hand, unknown female, and I cried. It isn't just about how beautiful and alive and wealthy someone is. It's the fact that they existed in the first place. They were someone's dream.


KLINEFELTER: T.C. Latham had few dreams left when I knew him. He said he had no family members he was close to, and I'm not sure if he would have cared that his body would be literally kept on ice for years after his death. His dream was just to survive each day.

LATHAM: I might go one day and hardly get anything. I might just get a few bucks - five, 10 bucks. I had a guy out here about a year ago hand me a $100 bill. So, the definition of a good day is pretty wide open.

KLINEFELTER: T.C. Latham: a voice from the beyond now, if not yet a voice from the grave. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter, in Detroit.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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