As the area’s population booms and a state of emergency over homelessness continues, King County officials say they’ve seen a rise in the number of unclaimed bodies buried by the county.
In death, they didn’t draw much attention. Some spent their final days in hospitals and shelters. Others were homeless and died outdoors. All were without a family member to claim their bodies or arrange their funerals.
But each one of the 278 people, whose cremated remains last week joined the hundreds of other unclaimed laid to rest at Renton’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery, had a story, Kent Fire Department Chaplain Pat Ellis said.
“By honoring and remembering them, these people of King County, we amplify those stories and make them our own,” he said.
Ellis was one of several speakers who on Wednesday paid their respects to the 223 men and 55 women whose bodies the King County Medical Examiner’s Office Indigent Remains unit has stored since the last memorial ceremony in 2014, when the remains of 137 were buried.
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Not every body that comes to the unit goes unclaimed. Since 2007, the county has worked to identify just over 1,000 people. On average, its investigators handle 210 cases per year. And some bodies are eventually reclaimed after investigators identify the person’s family or friends.
Still, officials point toward the county’s increasing population as a factor in the uptick of unclaimed deceased buried as part of the indigent-remains program. The increase mirrors a sharp rise in the county’s homeless population, a development that led regional leaders in 2015 to declare a state of emergency.
“There’s obviously a correlation between our numbers and what we’re seeing in the overall and homeless population in the county,” said James Sosik, an investigator with the county medical examiner’s office, who also heads the Indigent Remains program. “We have more people, so we have more deaths.”
Of the 278 buried by the county last week, 19 were found by investigators to have no permanent address. But that tally does not indicate exactly how many of the 278 were actually homeless, Sosik said. It also doesn’t indicate the total number of homeless people who have died on the streets of the county since the last burial ceremony.
The medical examiner’s office investigators charged with identifying the dead sometimes reach family members who, however estranged from the deceased, say the person did actually have a home. “Even if a person chose to live alone or on the streets, in those situations we respect the family’s wishes,” Sosik said.
All of the 278 were buried underneath a common headstone beside similar markers. “Gone but not forgotten these people of King County October 2016,” it reads.
The state passed the responsibility of burying the indigent on to counties in 1993, and the county regards it a duty to “honor and dignify them,” Sosik said.
The medical examiner’s office will wait at least a year while investigators search for family of the deceased. When space becomes limited, the county buries the unclaimed remains.
Although they are entombed together, each person’s remains has its own container marked with their name, date of birth and date of death. The containers are also given a serial number, in case a relative comes forward.
Among dozens attending Wednesday’s burial ceremony was the Rev. Rick Reynolds, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Operation Nightwatch, who spoke on behalf of Del Mosley, one of the 278 people interred.
“He had struggled for years, and like so many others he deserved to be off the streets,” said Reynolds, who had worked to find Mosley housing.
To Leah Mehus, at the ceremony as a lone family member of one of those interred, being able to attend was a “gift from God.” Her father, Edgar Lee, died of pneumonia in a Seattle homeless shelter in 2014 after a long struggle with alcohol addiction and homelessness, she said.
Despite an estrangement of more than three decades, she saved for two years to make the trip from Sacramento, Calif. Following the ceremony, Mehus said being able to see her father’s grave was “one of the only things I could do to honor him.”
“I’m grateful to whoever had a hand in this,” she said. “It shows that he and the other people buried here were souls that had value.”