Three-hundred eighty nine. That’s the number of indigent people who died last year in Cook County, Illinois, and whose bodies were never claimed. Dozens gathered at a Chicago church last week to remember these departed souls. The county board president reminded the audience that each one who died was a member of the community. “They had family and friends,” she said. “They were daughters and sons.”
Though these are nice sentiments, there’s no evidence any of the departed had family or friends – at least, not living ones. In fact, a CBS reporter said no one in attendance knew any of the deceased. Nearly 400 people. In just one county. In just one year. And, not one person willing to give them a proper burial.
That’s terribly sad. But, due to the recession and perhaps too, the breakdown of the family, unclaimed bodies are becoming increasingly common. No group tracks this sort of thing. But, according to the Associated Press, coroners and medical examiners across the country report a sharp rise in the number of unclaimed dead persons. In fact, in one county in Kentucky, the annual number of pauper burials jumped from 65 in 2005 to 300 in 2012!
Local governments are struggling to deal with cost of disposing with so many unclaimed bodies. Chicago has resorted to using mass graves. Los Angeles rountinely cremates. And, in Tennessee, coroners donate unclaimed bodies to a research facility. Yet, even that facility can’t handle the high volume and at times has had to stop donations.
I don’t know if any Christian ministries to bury the indigent exist, but they should. Because Christianity teaches the worth and value of every human being, Christians long have cared for society’s throwaways – even dead ones. In the third century, a horrific plague struck the Greco-Roman world, claiming as many as five-thousand people a day in the city of Rome. And, while pagans fled the cities in fear and despondency, Cyprian, the Bishop of Cathage, called on Christians to stay and bury the dead. This they did – dumbfounding the pagans – and providing an incredible example of love, sacrifice and commitment to their fellow man.
As Christians, we think a lot about doing unto others while they’re alive. But perhaps, we need to apply the Golden Rule to the dead, as well.
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