One of the more unusual aspects of working as a county coroner is that on occasion the remains of a deceased person will go unclaimed and end up in the coroner’s office.
New Douglas County Coroner Renee Godwin discovered this after winning the office in November. Upon taking the job New Year’s Day she found more than two dozen remains of cremated bodies, called cremains, in the office.
“The first thing I have to do is clean up what’s left from the past administration,” she said. “And that’s to get in touch with these families and get these cremains out of the office. … I’m quite sure people want their loved ones.”
Former Douglas County Coroner Randy Daniel had also been trying to locate relatives of the deceased, in some cases for more than two decades, but said he refused to dispose of them in case a relative does appear to claim them.
“You can’t just throw them in a dumpster,” Daniel said. “Somebody’s got to be a custodian of them. If somebody wants them we can’t say ‘they’re in the dump.’ I had to take custody of them.”
Daniel said all of the cremains were unclaimed from local funeral homes; none of them are from bodies he cremated. As an example, Daniel said his neighbor had her sister cremated after she passed away, but when he contacted the man to pick up the cremains, the neighbor said he didn’t want them and Daniel didn’t know what to do with them.
“I had a cabinet full (of cremains),” Daniel said. “But what could I do with them? I just thought it was the right thing to do. I don’t go so much by the book as by the heart. I knew it was the right thing to do (to keep them).”
Godwin, a Democrat, ousted Daniel, a Republican who had held the office for 24 years, as part of a wider Democratic sweep of county offices in November. Godwin took 29,361 votes, or 51.9 percent, to Daniel’s 27,192 votes, or 48.1 percent.
Godwin has worked in law enforcement for 25 years, including stints with the Fulton County Police Department, Riverdale Police Department and four years with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
The cremains are from several local funeral homes, who turned them over to the coroner when no one could be located to take them.
Chris Van Stephens, Stephens County coroner and president of the Georgia Coroners Association, said there is no state law regarding how coroners should handle unclaimed cremains.
“Typically, each county has its own policy,” he said. “Generally, I hold cremains in my office and if a family ever does show up or comes forward I turn them over to the family.”
Stephens said he has two sets of cremains in his office at the moment. Usually in Stephens County they are from cases where the county has to endure the cost of the cremation because no family is present.
In one of his cases, there is a family member present to claim them but that person is in prison, so Stephens is holding onto those remains until the person can pick them up.
Another option for coroners is to dispose of the cremains but keep a small sample, again in case family can be located to pick them up. Stephens said it can sometimes take a lot of detective work to track down family members, especially if they are out of state.
“If there is a change, such as a new coroner coming into office, those cremains are turned over to the new coroner,” Stephens said. “I typically keep them. I want to make sure there’s a reasonable amount of time to make sure families aren’t going to come forward.”