Work is piling up at the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office, since state law does not provide any way for the office to dispose of unidentified or unclaimed bodies, a legislative audit released Monday determined.
According to the report by the legislative Performance Evaluation and Research Division, 248 unclaimed or unidentified human remains are stored at the office on Charleston’s West Side.
That includes 162 cremated remains, and 86 bodies or parts of bodies kept in frozen storage, with deaths dating back to 1977, according to the report.
“We are daily exceeding our design capacity for both cold storage and frozen storage,” Matt Izzo, administrator for the Medical Examiner’s Office, said of the backlog.
Of the 86 bodies in frozen storage, which the report said are kept stacked atop one another, 49 are unidentified. The identities of the other 36 are known but the bodies have not been claimed, either because the state has been unable to find a next of kin, or the next of kin has refused to take custody of the remains. The 86th body, from the 2010s, is being held at the request of a prosecuting attorney.
The 162 cremated bodies are all identified, but unclaimed, Izzo told the legislative Post-Audits Committee on Monday.
At issue, the report found, is that state law makes no provisions for the disposition of unclaimed or unidentified remains from the Medical Examiner’s Office.
According to the report, a legal opinion obtained by the Performance Evaluation and Research Division confirmed, “There is no statutory authorization or process for the disposition of unidentified remains. Legislation which creates a mechanism and procedure for disposal is necessary to allow the [Office of Medical Examiner] to dispose of unidentified remains after a certain time.”
Izzo told legislators that West Virginia is one of a few states that do not spell out a mechanism in law for disposing of unidentified or unclaimed bodies from medical examiners’ offices.
“A great many states have paupers, potters, indigent — whichever label you prefer to put on it — mausoleums or cemeteries,” he said.
Under West Virginia law, the Medical Examiner’s Office investigates all unnatural or unexplained deaths, including deaths resulting from crimes.
Noting that the report shows that 194 of the unidentified or unclaimed bodies died in the 2010s or 2020s, Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, asked if that is a reflection of the surge in opioid overdose deaths.
While saying he couldn’t answer definitively, Izzo said, “The opioid deaths are a large part of our autopsy cases.” He said that, over the past two years, nearly half of all autopsies “have had a toxicology component.”
The committee adopted draft legislation to establish a disposition process for bodies stored at the Medical Examiner’s Office, legislation to be taken up during the 2022 regular session.