In 2011, 1,868 bodies arrived at the Los Angeles County crematorium. Only 440 of these people had their remains collected by relatives. The rest, the cremated remains of more than 1,400 people–men, women, babies, homicide victims, elderly people, unidentifiable John and Jane Does–are stored in the crematorium, in a kind of purgatory, awaiting pick-up from relatives, or, in lieu of that, a mass burial.
The Los Angeles Times digitized the handwritten record of the county’s unclaimed dead from 2011, creating a searchable online database and visualization of all the people whose unclaimed remains have languished in the county crematory for close to three years.
The visualization is simple, but given what the data represents, powerful: there’s a colored block for every person, organized chronologically from the date they were cremated. Blue denotes the person was male, purple female. Three babies are listed as “sex: unknown.” Scrolling over each square brings up whatever information the county has in its ledger: name, age, sex, date of birth, date of death, date of cremation. You can dig further into the data to just look at certain demographics: men, women, homicide victims, babies. A tally at the top of the grid keeps count of exactly how many of these bodies lay unclaimed.
Why only digitize information on people who were cremated in 2011? For relatives who might want to claim those ashes, time is running out. The county crematory can’t keep unclaimed remains indefinitely. Every December, the cremated remains of bodies left unclaimed for three years are buried in a mass grave.
As for how so many dead people go unclaimed: The majority of the dead whose bodies pass through the county morgue haven’t been listed online before, though the county’s Department of Public Health has said that it’s working on digitizing such records. Sometimes coroners simply can’t locate any relatives, or the person doesn’t have any next of kin. Other times, relatives can’t afford to travel to pick up the ashes. And some families just don’t want to claim the body.
Unclaimed people are a “quiet epidemic,” as Megan Smolenyak, a New Jersey-based genealogist who founded a volunteer group to assist coroners and medical examiners in searching public records for possible relatives, told the Times.