Hundreds of Unclaimed Human Remains Lead Officials to Consider Changes to W. Virginia Law

The West Virginia Medical Examiner's Office has nearly 250 sets of unclaimed human remains, some since the 1970s, that can't be released. The issue has a legislative committee considering a change in state law, the Associated Press reported.

The office, which investigates deaths that are unnatural or unexplained, has kept 248 remains of people who died because they're unidentified or unclaimed by family members, West Virginia's Metro News reported.

Officials said that as of October 11, approximately 162 of the remains are cremated, and 86 bodies are in frozen storage. Only one body stored is being kept at the request of a prosecuting attorney and is not considered unclaimed or unidentified, 13 News reported.

"Trends from recent decades suggest these numbers will continue to rise," research analyst Bryan Phillips told lawmakers.

The West Virginia Legislative Auditor's Office said they learned about the issue while reviewing how officials manage unclaimed or unidentified remains.

"I was a little shocked by it," Delegate Brandon Steele said after the presentation of an audit on the medical examiner's growing number of retained bodies, Metro News reported.

West Virginia is one of the few states that doesn't have a law outlining what to do with unclaimed and unidentified remains. State code does not authorize the medical examiner to dispose of the remains. Separate state rules describe disposal methods that state code does not authorize, Metro News reported.

As of now, the remains are to stay in the Medical Examiner's Office indefinitely if they are unidentified or if a next of kin can't authorize their release.

The committee adopted draft legislation that could be taken up next year.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

West Virginia
The West Virginia Medical Examiner's Office has nearly 250 sets of unclaimed human remains, some since the 1970s, that can't be released under current state law. Above, a dump truck passes a state line sign that reads "Welcome to West Virginia, Open for Business" on the way into Keyser, West Virginia, on May 1, 2008. David S. Holloway/Getty Images

"A great many states have paupers. potters, indigent — whichever label you prefer to put on it — mausoleums or cemeteries," said Matt Izzo, administrator for the Medical Examiner's Office.

He said the office is exceeding design capacity for both cold and frozen storage.

The Medical Examiner's Office and the Legislative Auditor's Office supported changes that would allow the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to give such remains a final disposition.