When the recent press release from the Unclaimed Persons project crossed my desk, it jumped out at me in a very personal way. I majored in Forensic Anthropology (the study of human remains) in college, and was no stranger to coroner’s offices. I’ve witnessed first-hand what happens when a decedent enters a morgue, and it’s a very cold (literally!) and lonely experience. My passion for forensics stemmed from a desire to ensure that families wouldn’t be left wondering what happened to their loved ones. The Unclaimed Persons project focuses on the other side of that mission: ensuring that the loved one is reunited with their family and laid to rest with dignity.
From an Unclaimed Persons project press release:
Alone in death and tucked away on dark shelves or cold gurneys in morgues across the country, thousands of deceased individuals whose names are known to coroners, medical examiners, and a handful of friends have no known family members to claim their remains. Homelessness, mental illness, long-term estrangement, deaths of all apparent next of kin, and other circumstances have severed familial connections. Ever-increasing caseloads and shrinking budgets make it nearly impossible for medical examiners, coroners, and investigators who cannot quickly identify family to find deceased individuals’ relatives without help.
Unclaimed Persons project uses genealogy skills
Many people are aware that it can be a real challenge when a coroner obtains a John or Jane Doe, an unidentified person. It presents the difficult task of identifying the person. But few people know that in fact the even bigger problem consuming morgues today is unclaimed persons, rather than unidentified ones: individuals who have passed but with no trace of living relatives to come and claim them. Thus, the Unclaimed Persons project was born! In 2008, genealogy author, speaker, consultant, and on-air expert Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak started this organization online. She shares how she got started working with these cases in this video:
“My first time that I worked with a coroner’s office was actually sort of an accident. I was just reading the newspaper and I tripped across this article about the situation of these people who are essentially unclaimed people, people whose next-of-kin just can’t be found. And I was reading about a couple of the actual examples they gave, and one of them made a fleeting reference to a particular case where they actually had the fellow’s family bible. And that’s what made the connection for me that ‘Aha! Maybe I can use the genealogical sleuthing skills to find these families as well.” -Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
After assisting two coroners with unclaimed persons cases, Megan founded a Facebook group with the goal of solving even more unclaimed persons cases. The online community of volunteer researchers joined forces with medical examiners, forensic investigators, and coroners to help reunite families and bring closure so that the dead can finally be laid to rest.
Unclaimed Persons is now celebrating their 9th anniversary with the launch of their new website, and to date have solved 471 cases with a 70% solve rate! But the unclaimed epidemic in morgues persists, and Unclaimed Persons is always recruiting more volunteers. As it turns out, family history enthusiasts make some of the best detectives in these cases! Genealogists combine classic sleuthing skills with their knowledge of family record keeping to track down even the most elusive relatives. This is a wonderful opportunity for genealogists to use their specialized training for an even greater good.
How you can help the Unclaimed Person project
You don’t have to be a seasoned genealogist to be a volunteer! Anyone with an interest is welcome to join. Visit https://unclaimed-persons.org/ to register as a member. You will need to complete a member profile with your basic information, and agree to Unclaimed Persons Forum Rules. Unclaimed Persons encourages researchers to have access to tools such as Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, historical newspaper archives, and other online subscriptions related to genealogical research. However, there are many publicly available online databases that can also help with your research.
As an Unclaimed Persons volunteer, one of the most important things to know and adhere to is that researchers should not contact identified family members, nor should they contact coroners directly. Each case is assigned a case manager, and all discoveries should be sent directly to them. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but in fact it ensures that coroners, medical examiners, and investigators are not inundated or hindered with duplicate information and can continue to manage their daily workloads.
And Unclaimed Persons feels very strongly that contacting even one family in error would jeopardize the high standards and reputation of the organization. While the ultimate goal is bring closure for family members, the primary focus of Unclaimed Persons is to assist these agencies with the difficult task of locating them, rather than to be the ones delivering the news directly. But for your own sense of closure, Unclaimed Persons will announce on their Facebook group page and their online forum when a case has been solved so you and the other volunteers can celebrate together!
If you don’t have time or resources to help with research, you can still help Unclaimed Persons by ‘Liking’ their Facebook page and sharing the cases among the genealogy community. You can also follow Unclaimed Persons on social media for announcements of new cases where you may have information or experience that can help (specific locations, surnames, etc.).
Click here to learn more about how to become a volunteer member.