Unclaimed bodies: More than 250 bodies stored in a county closet

Unclaimed bodies
Published: Jun. 22, 2015 at 10:56 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 22, 2015 at 10:56 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - As taxpayers, we like to know how our money is being spent, and sometimes, we discover tens of thousands being spent on something that is absolutely necessary and almost unbelievable at the same time.

In a community known for its history, architecture and of course, cemeteries, this might be the last thing you would expect to be an issue in Savannah.

For more than 200 years, communities across the south have had to set aside entire sections of public cemeteries for what are called Pauper's graves - a place to bury the dead when the next-of-kin could not be found or could not afford a proper burial.

Those pauper graves were relegated to the site in the Laurel Grove Cemetery. In fact, it became part of city code back in 1863. At that time, they called it the "strangers ground.” That was good for about 100 years, then the cemetery simply ran out of space, forcing Savannah to find another place to store those unclaimed remains.

Chatham County now stores the remains of those who pass (with no one to claim them) in a 10x10 storage closet next to the Coroner's office. The current count is more than 250. That is - 250 boxes of the cremated remains of Savannah brothers, sons, mothers, and daughters.

David Klugh: "How dignified is it to store 250 bodies in a closet in the Coroner's office?"

Bill Wesinger, Coroner: "It's not what any of us would want."

DK: "And it's not something you've got a choice over, is it?”

BW: "No."

Dr. Wessinger is simply doing his job. You see, Georgia law says he is the only one who can keep them.

BW: "In the last 12 months, we've had approximately 22."

DK: "That's a huge number."

BW: "Now, that includes several where we're still doing due diligence, trying to locate next of kin."

That due diligence includes hours of phone calls, letters, and investigation aimed at finding a family member to claim the body. It rarely works. And, as the years pass, the number coming in is only growing. So too is the cost to tax-payers, like you. The 22 unclaimed bodies that came in last year alone cost the county nearly $40,000.

With an average of 25 unclaimed bodies being added every year now, there is no question that the Chatham County Coroner is going to run out of room in just a few years. So, now the county has stepped forward with a plan to not only find a better way to store these remains, but a more dignified way to treat those who have passed.

"It's an embarrassment,” said County Administrator, Lee Smith.

Smith is no more accepting of this "embarrassment" than the Coroner. And, he has an idea - a way to dig the county out of a problem that is already out of control. One-hundred-and-fifty years after the area first addressed this problem with the stranger ground, Savannah is once again looking for a piece of land; something the rest of us take for granted - a place for hundreds to rest in peace.

"Maybe a quarter of an acre that has some nice trees, some nice landscaping, and a monument that may then describe the name of the person,” said Smith.

No site for this Columbarium has been chosen. And, while dignity will have a price, the hope is this site will be on land and already owned by the county.

"They're in a closet. That's not appropriate. I don't think taxpayers realize the job that the county has,” said Smith. “The Coroner, Commissioners, we take care of unclaimed bodies. Plus, 90 percent of these will never be claimed. Therefore, if we need to inter these ashes somewhere, let's do it in a respectable place."

"It does give people proper respect, and it gives families an opportunity to visit the area. Life is precious. Life is to be preserved. And these folks are worthy of some respect,” said Wessinger.

The assumption is that these unclaimed bodies are only the bodies of the homeless and the destitute. That is not the case. Many are simply estranged from the families, and many are life-long residents of Savannah. All deserve the respect most of us take for granted.

Of course, we will let you know once a site for that Columbarium is found.

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