This winter, I spent six weeks working with pastors in the Phoenix Metro area, counseling, mentoring and coaching.
Every morning at 5 a.m., the morning paper — The Arizona Republic — hit the ground outside the condo my wife and I rented.
The very first day I read The Arizona Republic back in mid-January, there were six short obituaries with names of people who had died but whose bodies had not been claimed.
The obituaries all said, “If you have any information regarding this person, please call Maricopa County Indigent Decedent Services at 602-372-0535.” Most days there were several obituaries like this.
The obituaries always caught my attention. Each had a name, usually an age and often a place of residence, almost always Phoenix Metro. Some names listed were more than 80 years old. A few were younger than 30.
One day when I saw the obituary of a 25-year-old man whose body had not been claimed, I decided to call the number listed and ask about how the process worked.
The woman who answered was talkative. She said as of the first week in March, her office is working on more than 50 cases of unclaimed bodies in Maricopa County, the county containing Phoenix Metro with a population of more than 4 million people.
“I got a call from the county coroner’s office already this morning with two new names,” she said.
“You have more than 50 current cases of unclaimed bodies?” I asked.
The name and age listed in the obituaries indicate the deceased person had identification.
“How often are the identified bodies claimed?” I asked.
“Not very often.”
“Half of the time?”
“Less. About a third of the time. When we do connect with family members, they usually instruct us to go ahead with the cremation and burial. Sometimes they won’t even speak with us.”
Over the weeks that I read the obituaries, two-thirds of the people were older than 50. The woman explained that obituaries of people over 50 are likely individuals who died in nursing homes, at home or in the hospital. The Maricopa County Coroner’s Office does DNA tests and fingerprints the bodies of every unclaimed body. Bodies are then cremated.
The remains are buried in White Tanks Cemetery, a graveyard for the indigent in west Phoenix. Different people, often pastors, volunteer to give the deceased a proper burial.
When I said I had seen five or six short obituaries of people who died before age 35, the woman said, “Often those are people who die on the streets.”
This winter, Phoenix officials estimated there are more than 25,000 homeless people in the metro area with no address.
“A lot of those younger deaths are from an apparent overdose,” the woman said. After trying to connect the dots of one young man who died of an apparent overdose, she called a number scratched on a note in the man’s wallet. It turned out to be the deceased man’s brother. That man thought his brother was in Las Vegas, not Phoenix. He told her his brother had been homeless for years.
“He asked us to bury his brother’s ashes here in Phoenix, and we did,” she said. “The man was relieved that he no longer has to wonder where his brother might be.”
At each burial spot, Maricopa County officials put 4-inch circular bronze identification markers attached to the top of stakes driven at each grave.
Sadly, a few times a year, a body is not identified.
“You still bury them, right?”
“Of course,” the woman said.
“How do you mark those graves?”
“With a number, date of death and whether the body is male or female.”
“Do you have a graveside service?”
“We do. Every person deserves a proper burial, whether that person is ever identified or not.”
“God knows,” I said.
“Yes, God knows, and God cares.”
After I hung up, a verse from the book of Job came to mind: “All a person’s days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you. You have appointed the limits they cannot pass.” (Job 14:5)