Unclaimed remains of 1,500 to get a final resting place in Laurel Hill Cemetery

Bill Doran, superintendent of Laurel Hill Cemetery, kneels by the stone that will mark the site where the remains will be buried.
Bill Doran, superintendent of Laurel Hill Cemetery, kneels by the stone that will mark the site where the remains will be buried.
Posted: September 30, 2010

For decades, a room in the Medical Examiner's Office has been the resting place for Philadelphia residents whose remains have never been claimed. Most were elderly, died from natural causes or illnesses, and were cremated without funeral services or headstones to mark their passing.

Last week, 500 of those estimated 3,000 unclaimed remains were laid to rest in picturesque Laurel Hill Cemetery along Kelly Drive, buried in small boxes in one of the graveyard's grassy slopes. In the coming weeks, 1,000 additional remains will be moved there as well.

The project was developed between the Medical Examiner's Office and cemetery officials, who plan to place a headstone marking the site where the remains are buried. They also will be honored in an annual ceremony at Laurel Hill this year.

"These are 1,500 mothers, fathers, wives," said Bill Doran, superintendent for Laurel Hill. "I think it's only fitting that they not only get a proper burial, but also the send-off that they never had."

Moving the remains will open up space in the Medical Examiner's Office, but David Quain, forensic-services director for the office, said that was not the chief motivation behind arranging the burial.

"It's the right thing to do," Quain said. "It's as simple as that."

The city began amassing cremated remains in the early 1980s, after a five-acre potter's field in the Northeast ran out of room for burials. Around that time, the Medical Examiner's Office also began cremating all of its identified but unclaimed bodies as a cost-saving measure.

Those remains are currently stored in labeled containers made of cardboard or plastic, depending on the age, and carefully stacked on shelves like shoeboxes.

About half of the office's unclaimed remains are people whose next of kin could not be found, Quain said, and about half are people whose family members were contacted, but who never showed up. Most are the remains of elderly men and women who died of natural causes, Quain said. Some were incarcerated for much of their lives, and were left with few friends and loved ones when they were released. Some were victims of weather-related causes, such as heatstroke.

Someday the city might consider burial for the rest of its unclaimed remains, but all of the remains interred in Laurel Hill in the next month will be those of people who died before 2000, Quain said. The examiner's office typically holds on to unclaimed remains for at least 10 years, he said, in the event that a relative someday turns up.

"I've had a situation where a woman was a young girl when her father died," Quain said. "When she was 18, she looked into what happened and ended up here. She couldn't believe we still had his ashes."

The burial project, which cost the Department of Health just under $20,000, will end with the 1,500 remains buried in six watertight vaults, which resemble tall, narrow refrigerators.

Remains from 500 people were buried this week in two such vaults, one on top of the other in an eight-foot-deep grave. Inside each vault, the containers of remains will be stacked neatly inside. The other vaults will soon be buried beside them.

Even if someone turns up in the future, looking for the remains of a long-dead loved one, Laurel Hill will be able to locate their remains and even exhume them upon request. The cemetery will keep exact records of which vault each person is in, and each vault will be divided into three sections so that remains can be found quickly. Those names will also be included in the cemetery's public online database of burial records.

"With so many in one place, it'll be essential to know where everyone is," Doran said. "There's always a chance of someone showing up and asking."

When all three vaults are buried, the headstone at the plot will read: "1,500 citizens consigned to earth, City of Philadelphia, 2010." On Memorial Day, when Laurel Hill holds an annual public service, officials will include a mention of the cemetery's new residents.

"We treat everyone the same here, we don't care if they were homeless or poor," Doran said. "You have to figure some of these folks were fine, deserving people. And what better place for them to be than here?"

Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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