Unclaimed: What happens when no one comes forward after a person dies
FARGO — More than two months after his body was found under a blanket in a car outside Walmart in Dilworth, Minn., police still can’t find anyone who knew 60-year-old Anthony Sabal. Not a family member, friend or even an acquaintance.
Locating Sabal’s family has proven much more difficult. Dilworth police investigator Hunter Rawson appealed to the public through the media in late July for help. Rawson said he’s tried about every angle. “No one’s claimed him, no one’s reported him missing. It’s kind of sad,” he said.
According to the death certificate, Sabal likely died from problems related to his heart or blood vessels. Clay County doesn’t have a coroner or medical examiner, so it contracts with Ramsey County for those services. Lori Hedicano, chief investigator in the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s office, said Sabal’s body remains in a freezer in the morgue.
“I can’t remember the last time we couldn’t find next of kin,” she said. Sabal will likely be buried in Clay County barring any last-minute discovery.
The professionals who make arrangements following a death say it’s rare to come up empty in the search for family. What happens more often is that family is found but they’re estranged from the decedent and want nothing to do with the body. The end result is the same, with county coroners and funeral homes dealing with the burial without any family input.
Cass County deputy coroner Kriste Ross said some who die may want it that way. “If you think of it, they’re dying alone. That isn’t how I’d want to die, but some people do,” Ross said. Feuds, addiction are factors Cass County coroner Dr. John Baird said it’s not his office’s responsibility to find family members of the deceased, but they do what they can. “At some point there has to be a final disposition, and it often falls to the funeral home,” Baird said. Family fights, mental health problems and addiction can all be factors in a scenario where no one comes forward to claim a loved one who dies.
Jeff Baer, a licensed funeral director at Boulger Funeral home in Fargo, said it happens about once a year. He describes a recent case, where a woman was notified about the death of her brother. “The sister hung up every time we called,” Baer said. “We had a pastor call her and the same thing happened.” Baer said in most cases in North Dakota, a body needs to be buried or cremated within eight days of the death. Without family approval, Baer said the funeral home can’t cremate the body, but will bury it instead. “Then if a family decides they want to do something different, they can,” he said.
Deputy coroner Ross said if a decedent’s family can’t be found toward the end of that eight-day window, a funeral home will put a short death notice in the newspaper as a last resort of notification. Then, the coroner’s office and funeral home prepare for a short service and burial at Springvale Cemetery, a county-owned plot off University Drive and 32nd Ave. N. in Fargo.
Baer said the once-private cemetery dates back to the late 1800s. Since the county took it over in the 1980s, most burials have been of people with no family members or who can’t afford a cemetery plot. Baer handles all arrangements through Springvale. When no family is involved, he helps find a clergy member to say a few words during the short graveside service. If family comes forward at a later date and asks what was done at the burial, “we’ll say we did our best,” Baer said.
Sometimes, it’s just the funeral director, coroner and clergy who go to the cemetery. If they see others who could possibly be estranged family or acquaintances, they leave to give them privacy. The last unclaimed burial involved a man named Najeeb Mekha Maroki, who died in 2014 at age 73.
Ross asked a deacon from her church to come out, and a funeral director brought a violin to play briefly before Maroki’s body was lowered into the ground. “It was nice that somebody had a final farewell and wasn’t buried alone,” Ross said.