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Unclaimed bodies on the rise in Kern County, taxpayers covering cremation costs

KBAK/KBFX photo

Like all cemeteries, Historic Union Cemetery is full of sadness.

In a field of sadness, possibly no place is sadder than the mausoleum where Griselda Hurtado points out two tombs.

"This first corner one here that you see that's holding about 400 cremated remains," Hurtado said while gesturing to the tomb in the uppermost right-hand corner of the wall.

The two tombs she pointed out are both reserved for unclaimed remains -- the ashes of people who the county coroner identified, but no one would take.

When the coroner identifies a deceased person and locates their family, but the family isn't willing to take the body, the coroner assumes the responsibility of cremating the body and sending the ashes to Historic Union Cemetery.

"Just having the thought of having one more person be left behind or forgotten, it's tough, it's tough," said Hurtado.

It appears leaving loved ones at the coroner is a growing trend in Kern County.

In 2016, 30 bodies went unclaimed. In 2017, another 36. So far this year, 28 more -- on pace for 56 by year's end.

All of those people end up in those two tombs.

Lately, however, those tombs have become full, so the staff at Historic Union Cemetery have had to start moving the ashes to unmarked graves. One in particular is the final resting place for more than 600 people who have been buried in just the last 10 years.

Hurtado believes the growing trend of bodies going unclaimed has nothing to do with a lack of love, but rather a lack of money.

"Just because of the funds, I mean, we see it every day," she said.

As funerals and burials become more expensive, many families are left with no choice but to leave their loved ones with the coroner, to be cremated, entombed, and eventually buried in an unmarked grave.

All of this on the taxpayer dime.

It's about $366 per body. Meaning, this year, Kern County has already spent more than $10,000 cremating the bodies of identified people whose families will not take them.

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