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A new book traces the lives of 4 people among thousands of 'unclaimed' deaths in L.A.


In the world's richest country in 2024, there are tens of thousands of people who die each year whose bodies are unclaimed. No family member steps forward to say, I know them. They may not even know that they're gone. The deceased may have been alone in life and then in death, distanced from family, their bodies left to be buried or cremated by a local government in a large common grave. Sociologists Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans trace the lives and stories of four people in Los Angeles County who are among those who are among "The Unclaimed," which is the title of their book. The subtitle is "Abandonment And Hope In The City Of Angels." And Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans join us now. Thank you both very much for being with us.



SIMON: Pamela Prickett, I gather this took eight years to write. Why was it important to both of you to persist and write it?

PRICKETT: You know, this is a subject that - I'll admit, I'm probably like a lot of listeners - I didn't know existed until I knew somebody who was at risk of going unclaimed. And it got me thinking, what happens if you die with no family or nobody to claim your body? We certainly did not expect it would take eight years. But it turns out that what makes the unclaimed important for study also makes them incredibly difficult to understand and to report on.

So there are no federal agencies to track or oversee the unclaimed. And so at every level, it just seemed like once you opened it, it was like another set of steps we had to go through to try to understand what is going on in America today.

SIMON: Yeah. And, Stefan Timmermans, let me anticipate a question I gather you get. Do family members not step forward because of the cost of funerals?

TIMMERMANS: The cost of funerals is definitely very high and often an unexpected expense. But the cost of funerals alone is insufficient for people to decline to claim a relative. What we see is that many families are estranged, and so if they haven't been in touch with Uncle Joe for 20 years and then some government official calls them up and say, do you want to claim? - and by the way, this will cost an average of $8,000 to organize a funeral, then they're very, of course, unlikely to say yes to this. But the real story is more the estrangement underlying the family situation.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Inez "Midge" Gonzales. We meet her in her van - and that people in the church, in that parking lot let her live there. They like her. And a family takes her in much of the time. She has friends who want to help. What happens?

TIMMERMANS: So Midge was a very heartbreaking story because everyone was crying about her. She really touched so many lives, even though she was living in her van. And what we see is how her church family is really deeply concerned about her, helps her to get housing, helps her to stabilize, and then she passes away. And the church is willing to organize the funeral and claim her. But some government officials find family that she hasn't been in touch with for several decades, and they have priority. And so what you see in this situation is that by looking for the next of kin as the closest relative, the government officials focus on the person who actually might not be the best for this job of claiming.

SIMON: The law gives preference to the biological family, doesn't it?

PRICKETT: It absolutely does. But we should always see laws as things that can change, right? Laws should recognize the deeply meaningful connections of all kinds of alternative family forms. More Americans are not living in what we call the standard family. We have more people who are cohabitating. We have people who have deep friendships and involvement in religious groups, like Midge. And we really think - Stefan and I really think after doing this project, this strict definition of who is next of kin is not capturing how we as Americans live our lives.

SIMON: Stefan Timmermans, let me ask you to tell us about what you found in any demographic patterns.

TIMMERMANS: Well, so the really surprising finding, the one that stopped us in our tracks is that people going unclaimed aren't the poorest of the poor anymore. For many centuries, the potter's fields were only used for travelers far away from their relatives, new migrants. But what we see now is that people with jobs, with families end up unclaimed.

SIMON: And, Pamela Prickett, the book might sound dispiriting, but we meet a lot of people - professional city servants, crematorium attendants, neighbors, strangers - who display great care and dignity for these lives, don't they?

PRICKETT: Yes, they do. And I'm so glad you bring that up because we keep hearing from people, this is sad - important, but sad. And it is. But there's a reason why hope is in the subtitle, right? You know, people who work in the coroner's office, it's a tough job these death scene investigators have. They deal with the worst deaths. And every day they're showing up just total professionals.

And then there are the people who give me, I think, a lot of peace and reassurance for the nation. And they're the volunteers - the people who show up, who are strangers, who don't know the dead that they're mourning, but they come to attend a funeral or a ceremony for the unclaimed because they believe it's important to honor everybody, no matter what happened in life, to come together and to honor them in death.

SIMON: I wonder what thoughts you have along those lines because you ask in the book, quite bluntly, if you die and no one mourns you, did your life have meaning?

PRICKETT: Yeah, yeah. This, Scott, was not an easy book - was not an easy book to do the reporting for. It was not an easy book to write, but it was a book I felt had to be written. But I think maybe you have some experience with this - right? - in terms of you wrote a book about your mother in honor of her after she passed. And I love how you open that book, death makes life worthwhile. And I think the book Stefan and I have written gets at that in a slightly different way - I mean, a grimmer way.

But I really think that it's in confronting this difficult question - will there be somebody for you? what is the meaning of a life if there isn't? - it's a way for us to think, well, how can we build a better society so that we're not expecting individuals and families to bear the weight of everything? What can we do so that there are fewer numbers of people going unclaimed and more opportunities to show our care and concern for those who still do go unclaimed?

SIMON: Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans. Their book, "The Unclaimed: Abandonment And Hope In The City Of Angels." Thank you both very much for being with us.

PRICKETT: Thank you so much. It's an honor.

TIMMERMANS: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.