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The Unclaimed Dead
Across the U.S., from Cincinnati to Sacramento, the number of dead bodies going unclaimed is rising. What's going on?
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James Lamar Dallas, born in 1947 and called “Daddy” by those who knew him, died on Jan. 9, 2016. He was homeless at the time and found in a covered area of an apartment complex in Atlanta.

Homer Lee Furnace, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was found unresponsive in his Memphis, Tennessee home by his roommates on April 18, 2018.

Sofia Ullrich, 63 years old, died Oct. 21, 2018 at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, Washington. She was homeless at the time.

These people, who led different lives and lived in different places, have something in common: After death, their bodies went unclaimed.

Cities, counties and states must figure out what happens next. From Cincinnati to Sacramento, localities all around the country are increasingly confronting a dwindling amount of space and money as more and more people die without anyone to give them a final resting place. These localities try to locate next of kin by researching and contacting family members, but this process can fail. Calls don’t get returned, no family is willing or the person didn’t have any.

In these cases, localities must bury or cremate the deceased who have been left behind — Dallas, Furnace, Ullrich and many others. That takes not only money but people who care.

Our reporter will talk with coroners, funeral directors and other death industry professionals about what we are doing with bodies as more go unclaimed and indigent burial funds run low all around the U.S. This story will also explore why we don’t divert more public funds to the burial or cremation of the deceased. And above all, how does our collective phobia of death fuel that decision?

Project FAQ

Who is writing this story?

Adina Solomon, Freelance Journalist reporting from Atlanta, Georgia

Why are you writing this story? What makes you the best person to write this piece?

A rise in unclaimed bodies is happening around the U.S. It's an alarming trend, and I want to know why so many people's bodies are not spoken for after death. I've written extensively on death, the funeral industry, and cemeteries. Past work has included looking at funeral pricing and its lack of transparency for The Washington Post, women instigating change in the American funeral industry for Broadly, a black cemetery in Atlanta founded by former slaves for Atlanta Magazine, and how Georgia’s large granite industry, long reliant on making headstones for cemetery burials, is responding to the rise in cremation rates for U.S. News & World Report. This story is a natural progression of my previous reporting.

When is the deadline for the piece? And why does the story require this much time?

The deadline is 3 months after the story is fully funded. This story requires a few months to allow time for finding and speaking with sources, reading the necessary documents, researching, writing the piece, and editing. All of these steps ensure the story is thoroughly investigated and easy to follow.

Why does the story cost as much as it does? Where does my money go?

This is the rate I'm being paid for the story. Freelance rates are priced to include time to research, conduct interviews, write, edit, and all the myriad tasks in between for a story like this. On top of all this, this piece is more in-depth, so it requires more time and resources than a short article or blog post.

What happens after the money is raised? When do I get to hear from you again?

After the money is raised, I'll start working on the story. I'll also email monthly updates to let you know how the story is progressing, what I've done so far, and what remains to be done.

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