December 11, 2017
Dying alone: The story of Lansing’s unclaimed bodies
LANSING — James Buckmaster died alone.
His body was found only after his elderly neighbor noticed he wasn’t picking up the sports section and fruit she regularly gifted the 63-year-old Lansing man.
Buckmaster, dressed in pajama pants and a T-shirt, was found dead on his living room floor.
That was Nov. 1, 2014.
The date of the last sports section outside his door was Oct. 25, 2014.
Those were the clues the medical examiner’s office held as investigators started to research and write the final chapter of Buckmaster’s life.
The retelling gets complicated in cases like Buckmaster’s. When a body goes unclaimed by family, the task to identify, notify, cremate and bury is left to official channels.
The number of those unclaimed bodies has been increasing in Ingham County — from 9 in 2012 to 20 in 2016.
While the long-term solution remains elusive, at least 36 people whose cremated bodies have sat unclaimed at Sparrow Hospital will find a final resting place when they’re buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Lansing.
The committal ceremony Sept. 18 will bring closure to cases that have tested investigators, medical examiners and hospital administrators.
“When I’m training new investigators, I always tell them that we’re writing the last chapter of people’s lives,” said Elizabeth Reust, manager for the Sparrow Hospital Laboratory. “The reports that we write, it’s sort of like the end of their story.”
A search for family, closure
On the wall of Buckmaster’s apartment was a young boy’s silhouette, titled “Joshua 1995.”
With no emergency contact information and a vague indication that Buckmaster may have had a son, investigators at the medical examiner’s office began to look for Joshua, according to their reports.
Sparrow Hospital contracts with Ingham County and seven other counties to provide medical examiner services through its forensic pathology unit.
“Generally, when someone dies, the family contacts us very quickly to retrieve the body and to make the funeral arrangements,” said Reust, a retired Lansing police detective and former chief investigator for the medical examiner’s office. “When that doesn’t happen in about 48 hours we start paying attention.”
That’s when the medical examiner’s office, in addition to determining cause and manner of death, also tries to determine who the next of kin is. Oftentimes, medical examiner investigators can find clues to the person’s identity and kin around a home, on social media or in records from the courts, the state or medical offices.
The process can be equal parts frustrating and rewarding, according to Reust and Luke Vogelsberg, chief investigator and supervisor for the medical examiner’s office.
“That’s a pretty gratifying part of the job,” Vogelsberg said. “It’s an all around unfortunate thing, but rewarding when you’re able to give families closure.”
“It’s really neat when you finally find someone and they care,” Reust said. “And they’re so grateful you found them.”
But there are other instances where a person is the last of their line, or has no family — estranged or otherwise — that comes forward to handle burial arrangements. Buckmaster is one of those.
In Buckmaster’s “neat and tidy” apartment, investigators found a driver’s license, Social Security card, a business card to a bank and retirement statements from the Meijer Distribution Center.
They found a number for “MaMa Bonnie,” but it was disconnected.
When Reust finally reached Joshua, who now lives out of state, he said he hadn’t seen his father in more than a decade.
Buckmaster’s case was forwarded to Craig Gerard, a lawyer at the Gallagher Law Firm, which serves as Ingham County’s public administrator.
In the role of public administrator, Gerard is responsible for administering estates of decedents who have no family or guardian to do so for them.
Gerard determines which assets a decedent may have and how those might be used for burial expenses. He notifies creditors, utility companies, and the IRS, and sells what assets a person may have when appropriate.
For Gerard and medical examiner investigators, the task of tracking down and piecing together a lifetime of accounts, connections and assets can be challenging.
“It’s like we’re walking down a dark hallway with no flashlight,” he said.
In Buckmaster’s case, according to probate court records, Gerard eventually was able to locate a Chase Bank account containing $488. Barely enough to cover Buckmaster’s cremation.
Other deaths, other stories
Buckmaster’s case is rare, but by no means unique.
Between 2014 and 2016, Sparrow Hospital’s forensic pathology unit, in providing medical examiner services to Ingham County, handled 65 cases involving unclaimed bodies.
Among the cases detailed in investigative reports from the medical examiner’s office were:
- A 50-year-old homeless man with a history of AIDS and drug use, who died at Sparrow Hospital in 2014. Investigators with the medical examiner’s office eventually tracked down his daughter, who said she’d filed a missing person report for her father the previous week. His cremated remains were given to his family.
- A 77-year-old East Lansing man who was transported from his apartment at an assisted living facility to Sparrow Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The veteran and retired maintenance employee at MSU was unmarried, had no children and no family. Investigators made contact with an old roommate from the 60s who acted as the man’s power of attorney. The former roommate said the decedent was unmarried, had no children, nor any living relatives. His body was donated to the Western Michigan University School of Medicine.
- An 87-year-old woman who died of pneumonia two days before Christmas last year at McLaren of Greater Lansing. Her only family member, a daughter, has a court-appointed guardian because of a “mental deficiency,” according to probate court records. The woman’s cremation, debts and home sale will be handled by the medical examiner’s office and court administrator. Her ashes were given to her daughter.
- A 63-year-old Owosso man who was found dead on the floor of his apartment above a furniture store after other tenants reported a bad odor coming from his unit. A medical examiner’s office investigator said the apartment was messy, with an orphaned pet turtle and items “piled on virtually every surface.” Investigators eventually made contact with the man’s brother and sister, but neither would claim his body. His son was in a correctional facility in Indiana. The man had been making payments on a burial plot and was laid to rest in an Owosso cemetery.
As problem grows, no easy answers
According to the medical examiner’s annual report, the number of unclaimed bodies has risen markedly in Ingham County, from9 in 2012 to 20 in 2016.Those cases were a fraction of the 634 the medical examiner’s office accepted for investigation in 2012, and the total rose to 660 in 2016.
While the majority of the unclaimed bodies at Sparrow Hospital originate in Ingham County, a handful stem from the other seven counties for which Sparrow provides medical examiner services.
For most, the cause of death is natural and the only mystery is who will handle the individual’s final arrangements.
When the medical examiner has exhausted every effort to locate family, state law requires that the body first be offered to a publicly-funded medical school for teaching purposes.
However, Reust said, the bodies usually aren’t chosen for the programs because too much time has passed between death and donation, they’ve undergone an autopsy, or because of a lack of written consent from a family member.
When body donation isn’t an option, the medical examiner can apply to the state for up to $700 in state emergency relief funds for the person’s cremation.
In some cases, the public administrator is able to recover assets the decedent may have to help defray costs of cremation or burial.
Reust said the hospital for some time has been storing those cremated remains, delaying burial lest a family member come forward.
The issue isn’t unique to hospitals.
Until last year, red tape slowed the process significantly for funeral homes where remains were left.
Legislation that went into effect in June 2016 provides more clarity about who has authority over the final dispositions of bodies, according to Phil Douma, executive director for the Michigan Funeral Directors Association. Once family options are exhausted, Douma said, the law allows for the legal authority to pass to the medical examiner, a guardian, or a designated funeral representative such as a friend or distant relative.
“With increased geographic family dispersal, rising divorce rates, families that may be estranged, it made the process under the former law overly burdensome and with a lack of clarity,” Douma said.
“Prior to the enactment of this legislation that was becoming an increasing problem, families not retrieving cremated remains from the funeral home,” he added.
An act of mercy, a place of rest
The hospital has long looked for a resting place for its unclaimed remains, Reust said, and found an answer last year.
After Pope Francis declared 2016 a “Year of Mercy,” Reust approached the Catholic Diocese of Lansing about opening a grave for the cremated remains, a service considered a corporal work of mercy in the Catholic Church.
“Their response was an immediate and resounding yes,” Reust said. “They said ‘Tell us what you need, we’re going to take care of this.’”
A total of 36 cremated, unclaimed adult remains will be buried in a vault at St. Joseph Cemetery, a relief for those who sought closure for those bodies. Buckmaster’s remains will be among the 36 interred.
“Someone’s taking care of them, at least, even if there’s not a lot of family available or involved,” Vogelsberg said.
The cremated remains of 274 stillborn children from Sparrow Hospital will be buried alongside the unclaimed adults.
Vogelsberg said when families experience a miscarriage at the hospital, the hospital gives them the option of either disposing of or cremating the remains at no cost to the family. The family also has the option of taking the remains to a funeral home at their cost.
Many families choose cremation, Vogelsberg said. While the remains for full-term babies are usually retrieved by family, remains from pregnancies that end earlier in term have been left at the hospital over the years.
When Sparrow began making burial arrangements with the diocese, the stillborn remains seemed an obvious fit for the plot.
The oldest adult cremated remains dates back to 2004, Vogelsberg said, while the oldest stillborn remains dates back to 1995.
The 310 sets of cremated remains will be buried in a vault and color-coded in case family ever comes forward to claim their loved ones, according to Tim Bazany, location manager for Diocese of Lansing cemeteries.
Bazany said the diocese has performed similar services for unclaimed remains in the Flint and Saginaw areas. He added that the cemetery is willing to help families unable to afford burial costs.
“Our primary objective is to afford the opportunity for the remains to be buried with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Bazany said. “The rest we can sort out.”
Bishop Earl Boyea, head of the Dioceses of Lansing, will lead the committal ceremony at 2 p.m. Sept. 18 at St. Joseph Cemetery, 2520 W. Willow St., Lansing. The public is welcome to attend.
The gravesite for Lansing’s unclaimed will be marked by a granite bench donated by the Sparrow Hospital Forensic Pathology Unit. The bench is inscribed with a simple prayer and Bible verse:
“Heavenly Father, bless these, your people, the stillborn, the poor, the unknown, and the abandoned. The Lord knows those who are His. — 2 Timothy 2:19”
Contact Beth LeBlanc at (517) 377-1167, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LSJBethLeBlanc.
SOURCE: Retrieved December 11, 2017, from http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2017/08/30/unclaimed-lansing-forgotten-bodies-find-final-resting-place/489157001/
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