'We Can't Leave Anybody Behind': When The Dead Go Unclaimed

WORCESTER, MA — The body of a Framingham woman had been sitting in the Graham, Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlor in Worcester for a little over seven months. She was unclaimed, meaning no relatives stepped forward after she died. The woman, Nancy Shapiro, died of natural causes and her body was sent to one of the few funeral homes in the area that accepts the unclaimed.

While unclaimed bodies are nothing new to funeral homes and municipalities, Shapiro’s case was unique because it pushed forward a vote that highlighted a first in Framingham under a new state law — the city’s Public Health Department can authorize the cremation of unclaimed bodies. The law was passed in 2018 and allows local boards of health or public health departments to authorize cremations for unclaimed bodies. Before that, the next of kin were the only people who could authorize a cremation.

The law has made the process of handling unclaimed bodies a bit easier for funeral homes like Graham, Putnam & Mahoney, but the employees at the home said, not all municipalities know about the law, and getting the word out has been slow going.

For cities like Framingham and Worcester, the boards of health weren’t aware the law existed until they were confronted with the issue of an unclaimed body. But for Mahoney’s, the home has been taking care of those who go unclaimed for decades. The law just offers a bit of logistical support in the process.

Located at 838 Main St., Graham, Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlor is hard to miss. It’s in a huge Victorian house built 140 years ago and holds the remains of more than 350 unclaimed bodies going back to 1900. Hundreds more remains rest in a potter’s field in St. John’s Cemetery in Worcester.

“We can’t leave anybody behind,” said Brian Smith, an employee at the home.

He notes that it’s not about money. There’s really no money to be made in accepting and tending to unclaimed bodies and the home absorbs the cost.

“It’s really a moral issue, an ethical issue,” Smith said. “We believe in taking care of the dead.”

Smith said, before the law, the home would receive plenty of unclaimed bodies and when next of kin couldn’t be found or refused to sign cremation authorization, the bodies were buried in the potter’s field. In several cases, the next of kin would authorize a cremation without financial obligation, and the ashes of the person remained with the funeral home. In all cases, the funeral home paid for the treatment and final resting of the body, whether it be cremation or burial.

The new law allows funeral homes to get cremation authorization from local Boards of Health if they haven’t found the deceased’s next of kin within 30 days. Homes can search for family for longer if they would like, but as Smith points out and Framingham Board of Health Director Sam Wong notes, the bodies can only be refrigerated for so long before they become a public health hazard.

Working in a funeral home is emotionally taxing work, but Smith said some stories of unclaimed bodies stick with him.

“We took in a 19-year-old young man from Worcester who died in the hospital,” Smith said. The home had nothing identifying the teen except his name, which hospital staff were able to scrounge from his personal belongings. No one came forward to claim his body. Smith was in awe.

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“How can someone not know him?” he said, “How can a teen die in a hospital and no one miss him?”

Smith said he got so invested that he scoured the national database for missing persons, trying to match that first name with a face. He had no luck and the teen was buried in a potter field.

“It’s sad, you know, because no one’s there — it’s just me, someone from the cemetery and the grave diggers,” Smith said.

As sad as his line of work can be, Smith said the funeral home has seen some happier days with the debut of genealogy and ancestry websites. Customers of these programs get a view of their family history after submitting DNA and often find deceased relatives from decades ago. Smith said several people have come to the home inquiring about a deceased relative who may have gone unclaimed.

“We had someone call about a relative who passed in 1955 that they found through Ancestry.com,” Smith said, “Turns out they were unclaimed and cremated.”

The woman was able to pickup her relatives remains because they were still kept in the home.

In the case of Nancy Shapiro, the home was ready to have her body cremated on the authorization of the Framingham Public Health Department, but were hesitant as they believed she may have been Jewish — cremation is not allowed in the Jewish faith. Smith said after an article about her case was published by The MetroWest Daily News, a rabbi reached out to the home to donate a grave for her.

“She will now be laid to rest according to Jewish tradition,” Smith said.

He noted that while her story was an unfortunate one, he’s glad to see it close on a peaceful note. It’s something he can only hope for the dozens more unclaimed bodies he expects throughout the year.