Coroner brings new life to unclaimed dead
NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Last Christmas, Carol Merinar got the best present she has ever received.
It didn’t come from a chain store or online retailer. It came from the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, courtesy of her daughter.
The gift was the ashes of her son James, who died five years earlier of a heart attack at the age of 43. His family had authorized a county cremation because no one had the money to bury him.
“It was such a great gift in every way possible,” Merinar said.
Even better, her daughter didn’t have to pay the $750 fee to retrieve the ashes.
The family benefited from changes that the coroner’s office has introduced to reduce the number of unclaimed remains in its possession.
Montgomery County currently has cremated remains of 96 people who’ve died since 2007. Their relatives have declined to claim them, or the office has failed to find living next of kin.
The number was higher before this news organization began investigating the rising number of unclaimed dead in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as part of its “Unclaimed” series.
Some of the dead slipped through the cracks in an increasingly burdened system. But over the last six months, Montgomery County has released the remains of 24 people.
Some had been in storage as long as a decade. A dozen were stillbirths and fetal remains sent to a Bucks County funeral home.
Chief Deputy Coroner Alexander Balacki has credited the “Unclaimed” series with inspiring changes that have gone beyond clearing out storage space in a county government office.
A plan to post unclaimed cremation logs the county’s public website comes with hopes it will generate leads to help identify next of kin. A new program seeks to reunite family and friends with long-abandoned dead. A new protocol flags individuals whose veteran status is unknown and forwards the name to the county’s Veterans Affairs department to request a check for military records.
“So no one slips through the cracks,” Balacki said.
Such military record checks would have prevented four unclaimed veterans whose remains have since been interred, from languishing in storage for years.
At the time of his 2014 death, the coroner’s office was aware Pottstown resident Edward Ryan Jr., 68, had served in the armed forces, but did not know if he had been honorably discharged, an eligibility requirement to be interred in a veteran cemetery.
But Balacki recently reviewed Ryan’s old file, found it mentioned military service, and forwarded Ryan’s name to the county Veterans Affairs office.
The office confirmed Ryan was eligible and filed the paperwork to have him buried with full military honors. He will be included in the February unclaimed veteran memorial service at Washington Crossing National Veterans Cemetery on Thursday.
Balacki attributes the 2015 death of Frances Salinger with providing the roots of his commitment to the unclaimed dead.
The nursing home where the 92-year-old Salinger lived had no family contact listed for her.
Balacki dug into her life, but found the immediate relatives her parents and son were dead. The office then submitted her information to an online group of volunteer genealogy sleuths that help coroners and medical examiners with unclaimed dead.
Meanwhile, Salinger’s body was accepted for donation to a medical school.
Nearly a year later, the online sleuths contacted Balacki. They found the name of her husband who died in 1983 and the Montgomery County cemetery where he was buried.
One more thing, the group found out: next to his plot was one for Frances.
“It was very important to us and very important to me, personally, to get her back to her husband,” Balacki said.
It would be another year before Salinger’s body was cremated and her ashes returned to Balacki. He made arrangements with the cemetery when he decided to review her file one more time.
He found an obituary for Salinger’s son that mentioned a granddaughter. A quick internet search found a phone number for her.
He called the granddaughter and explained what happened and that he was taking her grandmother to the cemetery that day. The woman then asked to come and get the remains.
“That was a great feeling,” Balacki said. “I just wanted to continue that.”
Last September Balacki implemented what he calls the five-year look-back program, which gives family who terminated legal rights to deceased relatives, or friends of the deceased, the opportunity to take them home now.
The program targets individuals who have been dead at least five years and waives the normal $750 county cremation fee charged after one year post-cremation. Staff review a few files at a time when they have downtime and attempt to contact previously identified relatives about the option to retrieve remains.
Currently, 61 of the 95 remaining unclaimed remains in Montgomery County’s possession roughly 70% were family-authorized county cremations, according to county data.
The new program addresses what Balacki and others believe is a significant reason families turn to county cremations: the inability to pay for even a direct cremation of a body, which can cost $1,000 or more.
“This is going on all the time. I can’t count how many times I’ve been on the phone with families, and grandpa dies and they can’t put together $800 for a direct cremation,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the National Funeral Consumers Alliance in Vermont.
Some states provide cremations for the poor, and some counties offer financial assistance, but they are the exceptions, Slocum said.
“Some places the system is punitive and cruel when a family can’t pay for cremation and with (government-funded) cremations they are keeping the ashes,” he added. ”’I sincerely believe most people are not out on the make to get grandma a county cremation.”
Her daughter didn’t know about the new look-back program when she contacted the Montgomery County Coroner in early December about retrieving her brother’s remains, Carol Merinar said.
“My daughter is so generous,” she added. “She wanted to do that even though she knew it would cost her a bit of money.”
James, her youngest child, was a “Dennis the Menace” the kid. His curiosity sometimes got him in trouble, like when he was 9 years old and he and a neighbor went joy riding in a golf cart.
He loved people, and loved helping others, Merinar said. He liked softball and wrestling. He was small for his age and kids gave him a hard time, she said.
After he graduated high school he worked as a handyman doing electrical, plumbing heating and air-conditioning work with his father. He learned bricklaying and cement work. He was married briefly, but had no children, she said.
When James died, he had no insurance to bury him, Merinar said.
“It happened so fast. We couldn’t even think,” she said. “The (coroner’s office) said they store people and when wanted could take him out. We felt so bad at leaving him at the morgue.”
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com