The Noble, Morbid and Tedious Process of Identifying the Nameless Dead

When a person dies, those close to the deceased usually follow a typical procedure: death is declared, a funeral or memorial service is arranged, the person’s affairs are concluded. If the person died suspiciously or violently, extra investigative steps must be followed; but the routine is similar.

But what happens when a person dies and nobody knows who that person is?

Deborah Halber at Mosaic examines this quandary—a predicament unexpectedly common, with approximately 1,000 sets of human remains going unidentified each year in the United States—from the perspective of scientists trying to match remains to identities, and of loved ones trying to find closure in a sprawling database of recovered bodies.

When human remains are discovered and not immediately identified, families of the missing often wonder if the remains could be those of their missing loved one. This “body watch”—the agonizing wait for an ID that would confirm or deny their suspicions about the remains—can take months or sometimes years. Some families find themselves launched into repeated body watches. “It never gets easy, never something you get used to,” Missouri-based victim advocate Mo Reintjes posted on Facebook. When a person is inexplicably missing, cycling from despair to hope and back again is “part of the hell of having a loved one missing that the public never thinks about,” Reintjes wrote.

The sense of loss without the evidence to fully justify it is the most agonizing part of this story. Julie, whose husband has been missing since August of 2015, grapples with this sad, confusing mix of emotions daily.

If she had his body, she would opt for cremation and return his ashes to the sea. But first she would mourn her husband properly, a luxury that most people who lose a loved one take for granted.

The article highlights NamUs, an online database that has documented more than 13,000 cases of unidentified persons and helps solve missing person/unidentified remains cases. Although funding for the organization is scant (medical investigator Robert J. Zerby describes matching unidentified remains to missing persons as a “back-burner project”), NamUs has helped close more than 2,200 of those 13,000.

Which means that the families and friends of 2,200 people can escape the limbo in which people like Julie remain.

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