THE BLOG
06/17/2013 10:43 am ET | Updated Aug 15, 2013

Lost and Found for Humans

As much as I love traditional genealogy, I also enjoy playing at the fringes to discover new applications for our research skills, and that's how I first tripped into the world of unclaimed persons. If you're not familiar with this concept, it's essentially "lost and found," but for human beings, rather than gloves and umbrellas -- and it turns out that genealogists are a tremendous resource for tackling this problem.

It's one of those quiet but highly disturbing epidemics. Because we've become such a mobile, churning society, people are going to their graves with no one to claim them. They aren't John or Jane Does. Their identities are known, but finding their family members is another matter.

Medical examiners and coroners' offices -- overstretched with burgeoning case loads -- are generally required by law to make a best faith effort to locate the next of kin for the each individual, but that's often easier said than done. Disposition of the unclaimed varies from state to state and even county to county, but in most instances, amounts to an anonymous passing and dispersal.

I first learned of this troubling phenomenon almost a decade ago when I read an article about a case in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. I called the coroner's office and offered my assistance, and before long, found myself helping other counties. After some time, a friend and I decided to make a video about some of my cases, and that, in turn, triggered the establishment of a volunteer organization called Unclaimed Persons.

This video shows cases from Pennsylvania (FYI, the Finch case mentioned has been solved) and California, and when we shared it, I was inundated with requests from fellow genealogists saying that they wanted to help. In response to this interest, I set up a Facebook group for volunteers. As you might expect, that group has morphed over time, and I'm delighted that Unclaimed Persons is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

According to hard-working Skip Murray, who now runs the group along with Janis Martin, their teams of dedicated researchers "have tackled 558 cases (some still in progress) from 36 counties in 18 states. Of those cases that have been completed, 340 have been solved and 105 have been closed. That is a 76% success rate!"

340 people who were lost have now been found, and 340 families are no longer wondering - all thanks to a bunch of genealogical sleuths who are willing to tuck aside their family trees for a while and employ their talents for the benefit of others. Volunteerism at its best. Happy anniversary, Unclaimed Persons, and many more.