Unclaimed remains out of control in Chatham County

Unclaimed remains out of control in Chatham County
Updated: May. 8, 2018 at 9:56 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - More than 300 boxes of cremated remains sit in a 10x10 storage closet next to the Chatham County coroner's desk, and it's your taxpayer money that is used to cremate and store them there.

Years and years of unclaimed bodies, or remains of family members that can't afford a proper burial, are just piling up.

In a WTOC Investigators story three years ago, we found this problem to be already out of control. Today, dozens of boxes continue to pile to the ceiling of that storage closet, and the county admits this responsibility has been on the backburner.

Communities across the South bury the dead when next-of-kin cannot be found in what are called Pauper's graves. Savannah's designated area - referred to as the Stranger's Grounds - in the Laurel Grove Cemetery - ran out of space in the 90s. The remains have multiplied in the storage closet since because by Georgia law, the coroner is the only one who can keep them.

Three years ago, both the coroner and the county manager admitted this method would not suffice in the long-term and was 'an embarrassment.' Today, that perception has not changed.

"We need to be more respectful," said Lee Smith, Chatham County Manager. "I would hate to think that I had a loved one or friend or family in a box on a shelf."

"It's at an overload, and it can't go on," said the coroner, Dr. Bill Wessinger.

The county says the coroner has a responsibility of due diligence to try and track down family members to claim each body. It rarely works, and Dr. Wessinger says the expectations to do this have not matched the resources he's been provided.

"Our budget is very slim, and it's been cut almost three years in a row. Each time."

As the coroner struggles with these costs, taxpayers are paying the bill. An average of 25 unclaimed bodies each year costs the county almost $50,000. The county says it's not an excuse, but the main backup on their end has been undertaking 15 new SPLOST projects, including taking over animal control, marine control, and creating the new police department. However, they say - this still doesn't justify the situation.

County Manager Lee Smith says he has suggested one to two acres off Ogeechee Road to be used to bury the remains.

"Right now, we own it. Nothing is going to encroach upon it, so we just see that as a real smart area," Smith said.

He says before they can move forward with the land, legal policies need to be addressed through the county attorney.

"What are the legal obligations of the coroner? Do they have to - as I said earlier - do the ashes have to be there for a certain time period, or not?"

Chatham County Attorney Jonathan Hart has had at least three years to make those arrangements since the last time WTOC checked into this. We spent the last month trying to get in touch with him. When we did, he declined comment.

A solution to these unclaimed remains won't be possible without the cooperation of the county manager, coroner, and attorney. Until then, the storage closet will only continue to pack full of remains.

WTOC: "Do you think it's fair to those 300+ people to be in there? Would you want to be in there?"

Dr. Wessinger: I really don't know how to answer that."

WTOC: "Is that the best we can be doing right now?"

Dr. Wessinger: "We can do better."

Smith feels confident the county can lock down that parcel of land and bury those remains within the next year. However, without that legal advice from the county attorney, the unclaimed will remain unburied.

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