Unclaimed human remains piling up in Bibb County

There is not much room on the conference table in the Bibb County Coroner’s Office.

A wooden box with a picture frame, an urn and several other plastic rectangles share the space.

All nine containers hold unclaimed cremated human remains of people with no known family members.

“These three right here, they were found in a storage place on Hawkinsville Road,” Coroner Leon Jones said last week, pointing to the left side of the table. “I chased down the next of kin, but unfortunately, their next of kin, he was deceased. So the guy that owns the storage facility brought them to me.”

There is no identifying information on the black ceramic urn with teal accents.

Nor is there a name on the wooden box that still has the factory-issue generic landscape picture where a loved one’s photograph was supposed to go, or on another plain black box the size of a child’s shoe box.

The other half-dozen labeled boxes are remains of homeless people or others who died in Bibb County without identifiable next of kin.

“I’m bound to run out of room sooner of later, because by the end of the year I guess I will have over 50 in this office,” Jones said.

Seventy more sets of ashes have piled up over several years at Bentley and Sons Funeral Home, he said.

At Hart’s Mortuary, Milton Heard IV estimates up to 100 unclaimed cremated remains are in the business’ basement after 84 years of operating the region’s first crematory.

“Some people are just uneasy about what to do with them,” Heard said.

Georgia law dictates cremains can be disposed of in a crypt or underground after 120 days if proper notification was sent to those responsible for the deceased, Heard said.

“We’ve never enforced it,” Heard said. “It doesn’t take up much space. We have a private columbarium in the basement and keep a log of who’s in there.”

Heard remembers one instance where a family waited years until both parents were dead before claiming both boxes of remains.

Cremation has dramatically increased from less than 1 percent of Hart’s business when it first opened the crematory in 1931 to more than 50 percent now.

“As cremation has become more and more popular, this issue is going to be more of a problem,” he said.

Since the coroner’s office has no way of contacting relatives to announce plans to dispose of the remains, he plans to consult with county attorneys about how to proceed.

“Can I bury them, or do I have to keep them in storage?” Jones asked.

Without a morgue, the county pays $100 a day to store bodies at Bentley’s.

Often when a homeless person dies in the hospital, the body will stay in the hospital morgue for days.

“The hospitals are real good about letting me keep bodies up there, but not forever,” Jones said. “The body storage fee we pay now is much cheaper than buying our own cooler.”

A Taylor County man who traveled with the circus died in Macon in January. He stayed in the morgue three weeks until his children eventually were located in Michigan, Jones said.

When Jones exhausts all means of finding family, he petitions the court for permission to have the body cremated to save storage fees.

Houston County Coroner Danny Galpin has not faced the same problem with the homeless.

Some families cannot afford burial and will not accept a body, but that is rare, he said.

In those cases, the state Department of Family and Children Services can provide a pauper’s burial, as the state does in other counties.

When Mexican immigrants without financial resources die in Houston County, often their fellow countrymen will pool resources to send the body back home, he said.

Jones said he is trying to hold the line on the office’s $300,000 annual budget, but he realizes some permanent storage facility or crypt might be warranted in the future.

“Families are divided, and family members don’t want to be bothered with one another,” he said.