Lonely in Life, Lonely in Death, Study of Unclaimed Remains Concludes

(CN) — Poverty and unemployment affect the dead as well as the living, a new study finds.

(Courthouse News photo / William Dotinga)

People who die alone were more likely to be isolated from their families and experiencing poverty or unemployment, researchers conclude in “Loneliness in life and in death? Social and demographic patterns of unclaimed deaths,” published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Using records from the Los Angeles County Office of Decedent Affairs, sociology professor Heeju Sohn at Emory University and colleagues find that family relationships “significantly” predict morbidity and mortality.

“Individuals reporting no kin or social isolation from kin tend to suffer not only higher rates of physical and mental health (issues) but also increased mortality,” Sohn writes.

Sohn and colleagues combed through decades of digitized records as well as handwritten ledgers dating back to 1896 in LA County, the most populous county in the U.S. and, at 4,000 square miles, larger than 41 U.S. states. The study, which included information on 16,186 unclaimed remains, was limited to analyses of deaths involving persons where were at least 15 years of age.

U.S. common law stipulates that the deceased have the right to “a decent body disposition,” while state laws give the right of possession to relatives of the dead person.

Disposing of the dead can be a financial burden on surviving family members, researchers found. The median adult burial cost $7,360 in 2017, while cremation cost $6,260. Dying away from family creates additional barriers, with claiming and transporting remains across the country increasing the disposal cost.

Personal economics and relationship dynamics influence how, and if, a body is claimed for burial or cremation, the study finds. Ethnicity, gender and age also showed “stark differences” in the outcomes. Males were twice as likely to go unclaimed as females (3.14% versus 1.54%), while African American deaths were unclaimed at higher rates than whites (3.93% versus 2.24%).

“Men are particularly vulnerable to a lack of kin support, especially after divorce,” study authors found. “Adult children are less likely to support their aging fathers if they were divorced from their mothers.”

Among the data, the percentage of unemployed was higher among men (3.1%) but percentage living in poverty was higher among women (14.1%). People who died during the middle ages (35 to 54) were the most likely to be unclaimed, researchers found.

During the study period, unclaimed bodies represented about 2.37% of all deaths, though 17.5% of unclaimed bodies were reclaimed by relatives within three years. Reclaimed body rates varied. Female bodies were more like to be reclaimed than male bodies (19.1% versus 16.8%).

Family relationships also influenced the rate of unclaimed bodies, according to the study, which was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“Greater prevalences of living without a family member, being never married, and living divorced or separated were associated with higher rates of unclaimed deaths,” Sohn wrote.

Notably, researchers did not find a link between long-distance migration and unclaimed bodies. The immigrant proportion of the U.S. population has grown from less than 5% in 1970 to about 13% in 2010. However, levels of immigration were associated with lower rates of unclaimed bodies due to “a strong Catholic death culture among Latina/o immigrants” coupled with their likelihoods to reside in extended family networks.

Researchers found that unclaimed deaths were “extreme outcomes” of social isolation and destitution.

“The confluence of unstable family relationships and financial hardship among groups with already few socioeconomic resources makes them especially vulnerable to lonely deaths,” the study concludes.

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