County Officials Ponder Policy For Unclaimed Deceased
Published: September 7th, 2022
By: Shawn Magrath

CHENANGO COUNTY – County officials are taking note of a rising concern over unclaimed bodies and the steps taken to relinquish the deceased – a problem for which the county has no local policy to direct.

The county’s Health and Human Services Committee pressed the issue earlier this week. Committee members pointed out that while the county updated its indigent burial policy in recent years, the matter of what to do with an unidentified body, or when nobody claims responsibility, wasn’t included.

“This is an issue that happens once or twice a year,” said County Attorney Zachary Wentworth. “In an unattended death, the first thing that happens is the medical examiner shows up and determines if it’s natural causes or if an autopsy is needed. When they release the body, that’s where we’re running into issues.”

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One problem, Wentworth explained, is a lack of space. UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital currently has two cooler spaces; Behe Funeral Home in Oxford has three. But there’s no local policy directing either entity to take in unclaimed bodies, and that could create problems when there’s more bodies than space.

The county’s currently exploring three options that would resolve its space issue: It could create space at the Chenango County Correctional Facility; it could pursue a contract with Behe funeral home for additional cooler spaces; or it could make arrangements to have unclaimed and unidentified bodies stored at available space in Broome County.   

But even if the space issue is resolved, Wentworth said there’s also a matter of designating responsibility to track down next of kin – another issue for which there’s no local policy. Typically this responsibility falls on the shoulders of law enforcement. But without a policy in place, the process isn’t clearcut. What’s more, there’s no policy to determine how much time should pass before adhering to state and federal laws to dispose of the deceased.

“These are all issues we have to deal with,” said Health and Human Services Committee Chair Grace Nucero-Alger (Plymouth). Nucero-Alger said she’s talked with local funeral home directors who are frustrated that the issue wasn’t addressed when the county updated its indigent burial policy.

Committee members requested that Wentworth reach out to neighboring counties for insights about their policies and report back to the committee next month.

“We need to move on this,” said Nucero-Alger. “But we can wait to hear what everyone else thinks. We need to explore all the options.”