US: Detroit families and county too broke to bury the dead

Money to bury Detroit’s poor has dried up, forcing struggling families to abandon their loved ones in the morgue freezer.

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Unclaimed bodies piling up in the Detroit morgue.

DETROIT (CNNMoney.com) — At 1300 E. Warren St., you can smell the plight of Detroit.

Inside the Wayne County morgue in midtown Detroit, 67 bodies are piled up, unclaimed, in the freezing temperatures. Neither the families nor the county can afford to bury the corpses. So they stack up inside the freezer.

Albert Samuels, chief investigator for the morgue, said he has never seen anything like it during his 13 years on the job. “Some people don’t come forward even though they know the people are here,” said the former Detroit cop. “They don’t have the money.”

Lifelong Detroit residents Darrell and Cheryl Vickers understand this firsthand. On a chilly September morning they had to visit the freezer to identify the body of Darrell’s aunt, Nancy Graham — and say their goodbyes.

The couple, already financially strained, don’t have the $695 needed to cremate her. Other family members, mostly in Florida, don’t have the means to contribute, either. In fact, when Darrell’s grandmother passed recently, his father paid for the cremation on a credit card — at 21% interest.

So the Vickers had to leave their aunt behind. Body number 67.

“It’s devastating to a family not to be able to take care of their own,” said Darrell. “But there’s really no way to come up with that kind of cash in today’s society. There’s just no way.”

The number of unclaimed corpses at the Wayne County morgue is at a record high, having tripled since 2000. The reason for the pile-up is twofold: One, unemployment in the area is approaching 28%, and many people, like the Vickers, can’t afford last rites; two, the county’s $21,000 annual budget to bury unclaimed bodies ran out in June.

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