Rest in peace. These words are a common theme at funerals honoring loved ones. But many people die with no one claiming their bodies. For example, at hospitals there are unclaimed bodies of patients and the unborn. Corpses are found abandoned often in police cases. Mortal remains can go unclaimed due to insufficient funds for burial or cremation, insufficient concern for the deceased, and lack of available or known family and friends. These bodies end up at the morgue. The morgue handles their disposal, which is paid for by the state or county.
I became personally acquainted with this process after attending a funeral for unclaimed bodies. The morgue had contracted with the funeral home for disposal of bodies. Concerned that a death ritual was also needed, several people joined with the funeral home personnel in hosting a monthly funeral to honor the unclaimed dead. The public is invited to attend. These ceremonies, which have been held in recent years, attest to what a small group of committed people can do who promote the entitlement of death rituals for everyone. While actual bodies of the deceased are not there, they are clearly present in thoughts of those attending. This is a description of my experience:
I join with eight others at a funeral home to pay final respects to 28 deceased people who are both strangers and new friends to us. Our purpose is to provide a send-off to celebrate their lives with funeral rites at this Celebration of Unknown Friends. We want to bring formal closure to the lives of those with no other means of having this observance.
Service preparations include printed programs, American flags for veterans, candles, and beautiful white roses representing deceased honorees. Each departed person’s earthly existence is acknowledged with an oral reading stating name (if known), date of birth, and death. Our sincere and enthusiastic responses of “May he/she rest in peace” feel empowering, knowing our presence serves as testimony to their lives and our hopes for their future peace. We conclude with a song celebrating this momentous occasion. Roses are distributed to attendees who are encouraged to give them to others later to pray in honor of the deceased. Each one of our new friends has been claimed.
Holding funerals for the unclaimed dead is a wonderful way to commemorate others. Those interested in providing these rituals can start by checking with the morgue regarding where unclaimed bodies are being sent for disposal. If it’s at a funeral home, they may agree to partner with them to hold monthly rituals there. Rituals can also be held at churches and other locations. A monthly list of names and other information about the unclaimed bodies should be available from the morgue. The group can create the funeral ritual, adding music, verse, and other components. Together they can provide a significant community service and send an uplifting message of peace.
Frances Shani Parker is an elder care consultant and author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes. She blogs at the Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog.
Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.