In L.A. County, A Spike In Unclaimed Bodies Los Angeles County is seeing an increase in the number of unclaimed bodies. Lt. David Smith, a supervising coroner's investigator at the Los Angeles County Coroner's office, says more people are telling him they can't afford the funeral costs, leaving the county on the hook to pay for cremating the remains.
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In L.A. County, A Spike In Unclaimed Bodies

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In L.A. County, A Spike In Unclaimed Bodies

In L.A. County, A Spike In Unclaimed Bodies

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It is a bad economy for everyone, even the dead. More families who have lost loved ones now cannot afford funeral costs. And that means county morgues and county coroners across the country are taking care of more bodies at taxpayer expense.

Lieutenant David Smith is an investigator with the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Welcome to the program.

Lieutenant DAVID SMITH (Investigator, Los Angeles County Coroner's Office): Thank you.

BRAND: So your office handles homicides or other suspicious deaths. What's different now because of the economy?

Lt. SMITH: We've found a marked increase in requests for the county to handle the disposition of loved ones, pretty much an 80 percent increase over actual requests.

BRAND: Eighty percent?

Lt. SMITH: Eighty percent, yes, from a - well, our original snapshot from July '07 to January '08, there was 205 cremations performed in that same time period. But July '08 to '09, 368. Obviously, it put a strain on a lot of different type of resources.

BRAND: And that is because, what? People, family members just cannot afford to claim the body and bury it at their own expense?

Lt. SMITH: Exactly, because one of the things I wanted to look at was I was assuming maybe we had an increase in our caseload. But that turned out actually not to be the case. Our actual caseload was the same. It's just that the actual number of people saying that they can't afford to handle private arrangements for their loved one actually just dramatically increased.

BRAND: What is the cost?

Lt. SMITH: A inexpensive direct cremation seems to run anywhere between $900 to $1,000. And if you get into doing full services, burials, cemeteries, you could easily approach the $7,000 mark.

BRAND: Now, I understand the demand at the county crematorium is so high they've stopped taking bodies from your office, from the coroner's office. So what are you doing instead?

Lt. SMITH: Yeah, as of February of this year, the county morgue notified us that due to their increased caseload, they would no longer be able to take the county coroner's indigent dead. As a result, we were forced into having to locate contract crematories to come in and help us out with the caseload.

BRAND: How much is it costing you?

Lt. SMITH: The crematories who agreed to help us are basically doing this as almost at a at-cost basis of $150 per case. I average about 20 cases per week. There was no budget set aside for it, so when this situation came to light in February, and we were facing it basically head-on, we had to evaluate how much are we doing a month, and at $150, what would the cost be? And unfortunately, we were already in the midst of a budget crisis to begin with. And we're just basically trying to put the department on cruise control to get through the end of the fiscal year, then this hit.

BRAND: So that's about $3,000 a week, $12,000 a month that you have to pay?

Lt. SMITH: Just about.

BRAND: And where are you taking the money from?

Lt. SMITH: Other encumbered funds that we had. So it almost came down to a point of who doesn't get paid this month - not person wise, but - maybe, you know, entity or which chemicals don't get ordered, which, you know, this doesn't get paid if we don't handle this, then we see obviously the volume in our crypts start to get to uncontrollable or unmanageable levels.

BRAND: I guess you're just hoping for the economy to turn around. Is that the only solution, so that people can once again afford to claim their loved ones?

Lt. SMITH: That would certainly be one answer to it at least, anyway. I don't see the cost of cremation or funerals getting cheaper as time goes on.

The problem with the coroner cases, traditionally, is most of the deaths that we have are unexpected. They're sudden unexpected deaths. Typically, you know, an elderly person who's been sick for a while, the family recognizes that this is a need that's going to come and either through insurance or, you know, through savings can take care of it. But when it's a homicide, a traffic accident, something along these natures - that's of a sudden nature, the families find themselves ill-equipped to pay for it.

BRAND: Lieutenant David Smith is a supervising coroner's investigator at the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Thank you.

Lt. SMITH: You're welcome.

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