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Megan Smolenyak Headshot

Unclaimed Persons

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It's a quiet epidemic and I'm mystified why it gets so little attention. In fact, most are probably still unaware of it, but ask any coroner or medical examiner and you'll get an earful about the struggle to deal with the growing number of unclaimed persons. These aren't John and Jane Does. Rather, these are people whose identities are known, but whose relatives aren't, so they are -- just like the items that accumulate at lost-and-founds -- frequently unclaimed. The same thing that happened to the gloves you left on the train can happen to the widowed great-aunt whose younger relatives have lost touch with her.

The coroners of most counties are required to make every possible effort to locate and notify a decedent's next of kin, and having worked with a number, I know they try their best. But we've become so mobile and our lives so busy that the problem is exploding just as many of the offices are wrestling with the budget cuts that are affecting government entities across the board.

People become unclaimed for a number of reasons. Sometimes they simply outlive most of their family. A disturbing number are homeless vets, while others might be the ne'er-do-wells of their families. Some are vagabonds by nature whose families get used to only hearing from them every few years, so no one notices until the silence goes on for a decade. They may be immigrants who have lost contact with relatives in the old country. And in some instances, they are grudge-holders, participants in a family feud that all parties have stubbornly refused to resolve.

When I learned of this problem about five years ago, I volunteered my services as a genealogist to help a couple of coroners' offices. As you might expect, there were some reservations at first. How could a genealogist find next of kin if they couldn't be found using conventional methods -- searching the deceased's apartment, checking numbers on their phone bill, interviewing their friends, and so forth? But it turns out that a genealogical approach is often complementary to that taken by law enforcement, so in a surprising number of cases, it's possible to turn up a relative or two.

A few years ago, a friend and I decided to make a video for RootsTelevision about a couple of the cases I had tackled -- one for Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania and one for San Bernardino County, California. If you're curious, I invite you to watch the video that follows, but my main reason for mentioning it is that our making it available online provoked a deluge of requests from other genealogists wanting to do the same. In an attempt to harness this enthusiasm, we created Unclaimed Persons, a volunteer group that operates mainly on Facebook. The group was launched in June 2008, and to date, volunteers have successfully located relatives for 114 decedents.

So why bring this up now? Admittedly, this isn't the cheeriest of subjects to address as we approach the holidays, but the timing is actually very appropriate because this is one of the best opportunities for a little preventative medicine. This year, when you get together with family, please consider calling that uncle no one's heard from for years. If you're not sure where he is, challenge a few of the Internet gurus in the family to see if they can pick up his trail. And even if your elderly cousin has Alzheimer's and is living in a nursing home cross-country, send a holiday card because that might be just the clue officials need to find her family when she passes away.

Finally, if you're one of the grudge-holders, please think twice. If you watched the video, you know that one of the cases involved a man who was found in a jeep in the desert. He was one of 11 children, so had plenty of relatives. Why the rift? More than 50 years ago, he had refused to get out of the bathroom when shaving one morning so his then four-year-old nephew could use it. That nephew now had grandchildren, but the family had chosen to hang on to the hard feelings of that morning for decades. Sadly, many family feuds have their origins in small episodes like this.

So whether you're the missing uncle or the one who doesn't really care that much that the uncle is missing, pick up the phone. You don't even have to mend fences. Just call and say how you can be reached. Save yourself and your family unnecessary worry or drama, and save the overworked medical examiners' offices and kind-hearted volunteers yet another unclaimed person case to solve. And if you happen to feel that it's time to mend that fence, so much the better!

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