WV Chief Medical Examiner’s office seeks legislative help with unclaimed, unidentified remains

West Virginia

The Office of West Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner says they have 248 unclaimed or unidentifed decedents’ remains they have no authorization to give a final disposition or interment. (Photo Courtesy: West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Office)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – The Office of West Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner said it has custody of 248 unclaimed and unidentified remains that it is not able to release to a final resting place, and workers are concerned that number will grow. Some of the remains date back to the 1970s.

Officials of the West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Office said they learned of this issue while reviewing the OCME’s management of unclaimed or unidentified remains, and now, both offices are asking the state legislator to amend West Virginia Code to allow the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to give the unclaimed and unidentified remains a final disposition.

The legislative auditor sent a letter to the state legislature’s chairman explaining that the code does not specify methods for disposition, meaning that even if the remains can be cremated, the OCME does not have authorization for their internment or disposal.

Officials said as of Oct. 11, 2021, approximately 162 of these are cremated remains and 86 are bodies or remains in frozen storage. Only one body being stored is still being kept at the request of a prosecuting attorney and is not considered unclaimed or unidentified, according to the OCME.

The OMCE said the decedent remains in its custody by decade include four from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, eight from the 1990s, 38 from the 2000s, 150 from the 2010s, and already 44 for the 2020s.

The legislative auditor’s office said, “Legislation which creates a mechanism and procedure for disposal is necessary to allow the OCME to dispose of unidentified remains after a certain time.”

One of the recommendations included in the letter was to have the remains interred in a “potter’s field” designated for unclaimed and unidentified decedents and operated by states or localities. This would also allow for the officials to keep their ability to exhume the decedent in the case of an ongoing investigation, identification or if the deceased is claimed by next of kin.

According to the legislative auditor, the WV DHHR, the West Virginia State Police and the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association have all provided written statements that they are not opposed to the recommendation, providing a final disposition of the remains will not hinder any investigations or legal cases, and for the unidentifed remains, that all methods of trying to identify the person have been exhausted.

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