What happens to unidentified bodies?

Written by adele burney
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What happens to unidentified bodies?
Unclaimed bodies often receive a burial ceremony in a potter's field. (Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Little attention is paid to what happens when someone dies and cannot be identified. Usually these unidentifiable bodies meet their demise through homicides, accidents, suicides or other unexpected ways. Some families are able to identify victims, but due to financial hardships they are unable to claim the bodies, so the corpse is left with other unidentified bodies. The individual states and counties determine the outcome of unidentified bodies found in their districts.

Potter's Fields

Potter's fields are the most recognisable destinations for unidentified bodies. Most states retain designated plots of land for unclaimed and unidentifiable bodies. The term "potter's field" refers to land used to bury the poor and unknown. Many states conduct a ceremony to bury the dead to offer them some measure of respect in death. Due to the recent downturn in the economy, many of the bodies that end up in potter's fields are there because their families do not have the funds to bury them.

Medical Schools

Many states, such as Maryland and North Carolina, offer unclaimed or unidentifiable bodies to local medical or mortuary schools. The schools use the cadavers for research and training. The bodies contain embalming fluid, which preserves them until they are needed by the students. Students practice dissecting and learn anatomy by working on the bodies. In some cases, once the training and research is over, there is a burial for the bodies. This reminds the students that these bodies are still people with families.


Some states are cremating the unidentified remains instead of burying them. Cremation tends to be more cost-efficient and takes less space. States such as North Carolina scatter the ashes in the ocean since keeping the box of ashes takes up too much space. As more bodies are left unclaimed and unidentified, cremation is becoming a more viable option to deal with the large numbers. It is important to note that state pathologist offices make every effort to locate family or friends of the deceased before deciding on a course of action for the body.

Missing Persons

Many states are recognising that some unidentified bodies could be "missing persons" that have families actively searching for them. To this end, some states are preserving information from unidentified bodies before burial or cremation. This information includes DNA samples, dental records and pictures of any identifying marks or characteristics. This information is sometimes cross-referenced with the national missing persons database to see if there are any matches. The information is available only to law enforcement, although there are some states now looking into publicising the site to help families of missing loved ones.

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