In the US, if a person who is married or has kids dies, their spouse or children can receive a one-time death benefit of $255 through Social Security. Considering the usual cost of funeral expenses, it is not much. However, it is $255 more than anyone would ever get to put toward my final expenses. I’ve been single my whole life and I have no kids. There is no “death benefit” for me. Maybe the government figures that my dead body can just be thrown in a ditch.
I like to use that example in talks I give about singlism (the many ways that single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, and targeted with discrimination), mostly for the gallows humor. But just this year, two sociologists took that issue seriously, asking these questions: What does happen to your dead body? How does the government figure out who gets to claim it?
It is an interesting sociological issue because it shows how official standards about who counts as family do not always match how people are actually living today. For example, sometimes the people who are assumed to be the deceased person’s closest relatives (the official next-of-kin) are estranged, and may be more likely to celebrate the demise than to claim the body and bury it. In other instances, the people closest to the deceased won’t ever be considered as an official person to be notified and given an opportunity to claim the body, because they do not have the kind of relationship that qualifies as next-of-kin. A lifelong platonic friend, for example, could be officially invisible, even if the deceased shared a home and a life with that person.
To find out who is allowed to claim dead bodies, and who actually wants to do so, the sociologists Stefan Timmermans and Pamela J. Prickett conducted an intensive study of the thousands of deaths over which the Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office had jurisdiction in 2017, focusing particularly on the 8.8 percent of the bodies that went unclaimed. They reported their findings in “Who counts as family? How standards stratify lives,” recently published in the American Sociological Review,
The Official Standards for Family and the Actual Ways People Are Living
In the US today, fewer than 20 percent of all households are comprised of married parents and their children. Increasingly, people are staying single, or not having kids, or they are cohabiting, or they were once married but are now remarried and forming stepfamilies, or they are living in some other non-nuclear household. Some people are also deciding for themselves who counts as family, and they are including people such as friends who do not meet any of the typical family criteria such as being related by blood, marriage, or adoption.
It can be meaningful and fulfilling to people to get to live authentically, rather than trying to fit themselves into the most sentimentalized family form when that form doesn’t work for them. However, laws and practices still legitimize some relationships over others. For example, at the federal level in the US, more than 1,000 laws benefit and protect only people who are legally married. If the people who matter most to you do not fit into official definitions, then they may not be allowed to take time off from work to care for you, or get tax breaks on estate taxes or inheritance taxes, or have hospital visitation rights or any of the other advantages. And, depending on the policies and practices where you die, they may not get to claim your dead body.
3 Ways Official Next-of-Kin Criteria Fit or Do Not Fit with the People Who Really Did Matter to the Deceased
The Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office has a notification unit, charged with finding the next-of-kin and asking them to claim the bodies. In doing so, they follow a strict next-of-kin hierarchy that includes 26 ranked categories. First in line is the person designated by the deceased to have the durable power of attorney; however, very few people have designated such a person. Next in line is a spouse or domestic partner, then adult children, then parents, then siblings, and so on. The list includes categories such as “third cousins twice removed,” but does not include any kinds of friends.
The goal of the notification unit is to find the official next-of-kin, but there are no strict rules about just how far down the list of possible next-of-kin they need to go in order to meet the due diligence requirement. The next-of-kin who is notified has 30 days to retrieve the body. If they don’t claim it, or if no next-of-kin was ever identified, then the body is cremated and the county covers the cost.
1. Formal Fit: The Officially Recognized Family Corresponds to Existing Family Dynamics
In the most straightforward cases, the next-of-kin is contacted and agrees to retrieve the body. Even in those cases, though, the person who qualifies as next-of-kin is not always the person who feels closest to the deceased. Often, the person who does feel closest does not contest the official designation. The fit between the assumed next-of-kin and the actual affections is close enough, and the process unfolds smoothly.
2. Formal Misfit: The Officially Recognized Family Does Not Correspond to the Social Reality
The next-of-kin rules assume that the people who qualify as officially closest to the deceased person will be willing to claim the body and will want to do so. But in one of ten cases handled by the LA Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office, the bodies went unclaimed because the official family failed to act. That can happen because of estrangement, messy ties, or a lack of money or resources. In other instances, people who may have wanted to claim the body are never contacted because they do not fit official definitions of next-of-kin.
Estrangement, In the vast majority of cases in which an official family member refuses to claim the body, the deceased person was estranged from the next-of-kin. Sometimes they were estranged for reasons such as abuse or neglect or intolerable conflicts. Other times, the deceased person had been out of touch so long, they were considered “socially dead.”
Messy ties. Bodies can go unclaimed when the deceased “had too many ties, too many potential next-of-kin, …ties that defy categorization, or secrets from their past.” For example, a man had two secret biological children who were the official next-of-kin. They had not known their father and were unwilling to make funeral arrangements.
Money and resources. Funerals can be expensive, and some next-of-kin cannot afford them. An example the authors offered is a cautionary tale for those who think that having children will protect them from becoming an unclaimed dead body. The woman in question was living in her son’s home when she died. The nurse who was there called the Neptune Society and they had the body. When the son heard what the arrangements would cost, he said, “Just keep her. She’s dead. She ain’t gonna know the difference.” The Neptune Society did not keep the body, and the son never retrieved it. In other instances, the official relatives deliberately let the clock run out and then ask to pick up the ashes after the body has been cremated – or they never do retrieve the remains.
Not on the list. Official designations also go wrong when people who care about the deceased are never contacted because they do not qualify as next-of-kin. In a case the authors described, a man was found dead near a construction site. He was described by the owner of the construction company as a smart man who spoke French, Spanish, Hebrew, and English. He had been around for five years. The workers liked him. He was homeless when he died. The owner had given him food and welcomed him to sleep on the site. It is possible that the owner or the workers would have been willing to arrange a funeral, but they were never asked.
3. Formal Refit: People Who Do Not Qualify as Next-of-Kin Try to Claim the Body
Sometimes people who care about the deceased but do not qualify as official kin will try to claim the body. That takes a lot of time and substantial resources, and it rarely works. The official next-of-kin need to be contacted first, and they need to either sign a form relinquishing their right to the body, or just never respond to requests to pick up the body. At that point, the person who does want to claim the body can petition the court for permission. The officials in charge of notification rarely mention that option, so the people who may be interested in it might never know that it is a possibility.
We Get to Choose, But Our Choices May Not Be Honored
Twenty-first century adults often get to choose who is going to matter to them and how they are going to live their lives. But laws and practices have not always kept up. As a result, Timmermans and Prickett argue, “people who have been living on their own terms may still see their life choices ignored.”
The scholars point out that existing practices can perpetuate inequalities. “The state’s family standards may reinforce racial and heterosexist biases if they systematically fail to recognize, for example, Black and gay family formations.” I would add that single people, and adults with no children, are also likely to have important people in their lives who are rendered invisible by policies and practices that do not acknowledge their significance or even their existence.