FOX21 SPECIAL REPORT: More than 40 bodies go unclaimed in El Paso County every year

Death is a natural part of life. But what happens if you die alone? Some might say it's the saddest thing imaginable but what if no one even realized you died? More than 40 people die in El Paso County every year and no one ever knows./ Ray Harless -- FOX21 News
Death is a natural part of life. But what happens if you die alone? Some might say it's the saddest thing imaginable but what if no one even realized you died? More than 40 people die in El Paso County every year and no one ever knows./ Ray Harless -- FOX21 News

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Death is a natural part of life.

“We bring in about 800 bodies from El Paso County a year,” said Dr. Robert Bux, El Paso County Coroner. “There are about 4,200 deaths and we investigate about 3,800 of those.”

But what happens if you die alone?

Dr. Bux said, “It’s surprising the number of people that don’t have family or don’t have a close neighbor or a close friend.”

Some might say it’s the saddest thing imaginable but what if no one even realized you died?

“My job is fiduciary of last resort and one of the places where I serve is when there is no one to claim a body,” said Catherine Seal, El Paso County Public Administrator.

Sadly it happens more than you might think. More than 40 people die in El Paso County every year and no one ever knows.

Dr. Bux said, “The body stays here and once we’ve exhausted our database in order to try to find next of kin, then what we do is contact the public administrator.”

When the public administrator takes the case, their job is to go through the person’s belongings to try and find bank accounts or someone who knew them.

But sometimes the search comes up empty.

“I had a case where the gentleman died in a house fire and all of the information that would have told us who his family was burned in the fire,” said Seal. “No one knew this gentleman so no one had any financial information.”

Other times there is no next of kin.

Seal said, “Sometimes someone is old enough that their parents predeceased them, they have no siblings, they either never married or they have long divorced or widowed and they had no children.”

Seal says in Colorado Springs, sometimes it’s a bride from overseas who married a military member. If her husband dies first and they have no children, her history can be impossible to track down.

“No one knows much about the wife,” said Seal. “She doesn’t have roots with her former country and her family back there. She’s really just started a new life here only no one here has any information on who her relatives would be.”

Seal says another common scenario in unclaimed deaths is that the person was homeless.

“A certain percentage of my cases where we don’t find family, that’s really what we have,” said Seal. “We have an individual who is transient, maybe homeless, maybe not but certainly transient and does not have ties with their family.”

Dr. Bux said, “It’s sad when we see this and particularly if that individual has been estranged from his or her family and has taken steps to sort of drop out from that relationship.”

Now this doesn’t happen often, maybe once a year, but Seal says the toughest part of her job is seeing babies who die and are never again acknowledged by their families.

“There’s a lot of emotion when a baby dies immediately after it’s born or is stillborn and not every family is able to process that grief in a way that  they’re able to go back to the hospital and claim the body,” said Seal.

It was difficult for her to even talk about these cases but Seal says because of that emotion the babies are given a respectful funeral.

Other unclaimed bodies are cremated and their remains are kept for at least one year.

Seal said, “So sometimes family doesn’t find out that their loved one has died for six months to a year and then they contact our office and we’ve got the cremains and we’ll go ahead and send them the cremains to the family members.”

Once a year or so is up, the ashes are buried.

“We will place several cremains in one plot that was originally designed for the burial of a casket,” said Seal.

Family items are held for at least 10 years in hopes someone will come collect them; however, items of value like cars or trucks are handled differently. Things like that are sold to help cover the cremation or any other costs from their death investigation or burial. Any money left over is sent to the Colorado State Treasurer under the name of the individual who has died.

“That money gets held in the state’s fund for 21 years so if we have $200, $500, $1,000 for this individual and we’ve not been able to locate family, that money is held by the state treasurer’s office.”

If someone discovers their loved one has died they can always check with the treasurer’s office and see if the deceased person’s name is on a list indicating there are funds left behind.

Detailed records are kept of who has died and where they’re buried in case someone eventually discovers they’re missing.

Dr. Bux said, “It’s disheartening to see how that happens and to see how some people that have lived in a place for years, the next door neighbor doesn’t even know who they are and to me that’s sad.”

Public administration is an unfunded office. Seal is also a private practice attorney but for the majority of her work the government bears no cost for it.

Seal says there are funeral homes in town that will do cremations knowing they possibly won’t get paid for it.

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