Oregonians act as ‘next of kin’ for unclaimed dead

From The Oregonian, June 12, 2009, by Anne Saker

READ – Oregon Indigent Burial Fund, January 2000 until February 2011 (1 MB PDF) – list of 2354 unclaimed bodies of persons who died in Oregon

She loved saying hello, to anyone. People remembered that about her, the woman on the bench at the downtown corner of Southwest Sixth Avenue and Alder Street. She considered it her purpose to bestow good cheer, if only with a flash of her smiling baby blues. Her long red hair bounced when she nodded.

This is the only photograph that Derik Morgan and Maxx Wilson have of Anita Marie Floyd, the woman they called Mom, from when they lived as an informal family for 15 years. The photo was taken shortly before her November 2006 death at 71. She is on the bench at Southwest Sixth Avenue and Alder Street, where she sat daily as an "unofficial greeter" for her adopted city.

The first-year medical students knew none of that, of course. In a well-lit lab at OHSU, four of them stood in scrubs, plastic aprons and gloves around a gleaming stainless-steel table where the 71-year-old body lay. They took in the details: tattooed biceps, slender fingers, that red hair.

She came to them not by choice but by circumstance.

She had nowhere else to go.

She was unclaimed.

One simple comfort of life is that we’re usually pretty sure where we will lay our heads at night. But we can never be certain, no matter how we plan ahead, of where we will rest for eternity. For most of the 30,000 Oregonians who die every year, that decision often falls to a spouse, a relative or a friend.

In about 200 of those deaths, though, the next of kin are the citizens of Oregon.

The state pays for the disposition of the unclaimed dead through the Indigent Burial Fund. Created in 1993, the fund operated almost invisibly until the January 2007 death of Robert “R.J.” Anheier of Portland. He had no money set aside for a funeral, and a bad computer search led officials to believe his family didn’t want the responsibility. So the fund paid to deliver his body to the anatomy lab at Oregon Health & Science University.

At the same time, Anheier’s distraught friends and his sister in Florida were searching for him. They tracked him down two months later, and the medical school released his body to them.

The confusion led The Oregonian to fight for nearly two years to get records from OHSU and the Department of Human Services, which administers the Indigent Burial Fund, to find out how authorities seek family or friends.

The records, released this year, show that since January 2000 the fund has attended to 1,847 people — cremations for 1,721 and transportation to OHSU for 126.

The records dispel the notion that the unclaimed are also unknown. Today, everyone carries identification, at the least a set of fingerprints. Of all those on the Indigent Burial Fund list, only 11 are registered as John Doe, “unidentified” or “unknown.”

For a closer look at who becomes unclaimed, The Oregonian examined the cases of a dozen people who died around the same time as Anheier and whose bodies also went to OHSU. No other error like Anheier’s turned up. But the 12 lives illustrated how complicated and imprecise the search for next of kin can be — and their stories shared striking similarities:

They were poor but not always homeless. In his youth, Anheier rode the rails, but he had lived for years in a small downtown apartment.

They were the black sheep of their families, largely because of alcoholism. Some, like James Shade, were sent away. Others, like Karen Skiber, wandered away.

Mental illness can inflict a final indignity. Loyal Orem was driven to collect belongings and trash until they overflowed his tiny trailer in Newport.

In four of the 12 cases, authorities found a relative who refused responsibility or did not have the financial means to accept it. Anita Marie Floyd, the red-haired woman on the downtown bench, lived with two men who acted as her family, but they weren’t her legal next of kin.

The next-of-kin network

The law that established the Indigent Burial Fund gives authorities 10 days to find next of kin, then the body must be offered to OHSU or cremated. A substantial network to address that task, running all over the state, links hospital chaplains, nursing-home social workers, funeral directors, investigators for the state medical examiner and others.

They talk to friends and hunt through public records and the Internet. They seek help from police and parole or probation officers. They even turn to the Department of State Lands, which oversees unclaimed property.

In 20 years as a chaplain at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital & Medical Center, Arthur Andrews has looked for next of kin dozens of times and succeeded in about three out of four instances. Once, Andrews despaired for a man named Juan Juarez until his friends remembered that he once mentioned a Native American tribe in Arizona. One call made the match.

“Sometimes, that’s all it takes, someone remembering something said at a poker game,” Andrews said. But he is haunted by the searches that failed: “So frequently there’s been alienation from the family for a long, long time.”

“State Lands told me about a case the other day. They got into a woman’s apartment and found a record of a daughter in Ohio. They called up and said, ‘Your mother has died,’ and she said, ‘Oh, good,’ and slammed down the phone.”

To Derik Morgan and Maxx Wilson, Anita Floyd was Mom, and they were her boys. They had lived together for 15 years, through poverty and periodic homelessness in San Francisco and Portland. When Floyd fell ill, the boys kept a vigil at her bedside. But at her death Nov. 29, 2006, at 71, they didn’t have $500 to cremate her.

“We wanted to do that for her, but we couldn’t,” Morgan said. “So we had to let her go.”

A frantic search

Anheier’s sister and his friends gladly took responsibility for his body. But they had to find it first.

On Jan. 4, 2007, at 63, Anheier suffered a heart attack on a downtown street not far from his apartment at the Biltmore Hotel. When he died at Good Samaritan, hospital officials found that he carried an ID, but they could not reach anyone at his apartment.

An investigator with the state medical examiner searched the Internet. The investigator did not find the sister in Florida but instead a distant cousin in California. As the 10-day clock ticked, the cousin asked for a day to decide what to do. Then the cousin declined responsibility. Omega Funeral & Cremation Service collected Anheier’s body and, as the law required, offered it to OHSU.

The school accepted the body, and the Indigent Burial Fund paid Omega $37.50 for the transport.

Meanwhile, Anheier’s friends in Portland and his sister searched frantically for him. At last, someone called the medical examiner, which led them to the medical school. Outraged, the friends and sister said a visit to his apartment would have yielded contact numbers. The medical examiner could only apologize.

This past September, OHSU decided it would no longer take unclaimed bodies and instead would step up donor recruitment. William Cameron, OHSU’s demonstrator of anatomy, said the Anheier case gave him pause: “I don’t want it happening again.”

The alcoholic

In late 2006, James Edwin Shade Jr. lived in a Portland nursing home, a 110-pound husk of a man. He told the staff he had no next of kin, so when he died Oct. 27, 2006, at 58, the nursing home simply called Omega.

Erin Phelps
, who with his wife, Kathy, owns Omega, waited the required 10 days then contacted OHSU.

Like most medical schools, OHSU relies on voluntary body donations and is chronically short of cadavers for students and researchers. The Indigent Burial Fund law aimed to help ease the need with the ready resource of the unclaimed dead.

The school’s criteria for a body — no trauma, no disease that distorts internal organs — ruled out the vast majority of unclaimed bodies. Shade’s body was found suitable. Phelps delivered it and billed the transportation cost to the Indigent Burial Fund, which is financed with the $7 fee paid to record a death with the state.

On his reimbursement request, Phelps wrote, “No family or friends available per nursing home records.”

So La Rayne Becker was surprised when The Oregonian called in March with news of her brother’s death — but not that surprised.

“I lost contact with him, gosh, in the 1970s,” said Becker, who lives on the Oregon coast. “I used to try to keep track of him. I looked him up on the Internet once, and I found that he was living over off of Powell, some dumpy area over in there. But we never contacted him.”

When Shade was a boy, “We all just loved him to death. He was so smart and so cute. We just idolized him. He was the child who had every advantage.”

He started smoking and drinking in grade school and never stopped, which led to thievery. When family members discovered after their mother died that Shade had been stealing from her, Becker said, they told Shade that he had to go.

She sighed. “I’ve been dreading this news. I figured the alcohol would get him. But if he went up to the medical school, maybe he could do some good there.”

The wanderer

Karen Skiber
began her life in Idaho, moved to New York and married. The couple later settled in Lane County, but when her husband died in 1985, she kept moving, to California, back to Oregon, to Nebraska — where she wrote a paper on genealogy for a local historical society — and back to Oregon.

She spent 2006 at Celesta Rosen’s adult foster care home in Springfield.

“They had caught her out in the middle of the street. That’s how she came to me,” Rosen said. “She didn’t know where she was or what she was doing or anything about herself. She said she had no family, no kids. She never said anything about a husband.”

Rosen encouraged Skiber, “a sweetie, just so polite,” to sit at a table and play Yahtzee. “I felt sad that she had no one to go to,” Rosen said. “I tried to do things with her. She loved getting her hair done. She loved to walk in the fresh air.”

Skiber died at 65 on New Year’s Eve 2006, and Rosen called England’s Eugene Memorial Chapel. On the chance that someone in Nebraska knew Skiber, the funeral home placed a two-line obituary in the Lincoln Journal Star. No response.

The Indigent Burial Fund paid England’s $37.84 for the delivery to OHSU.

The lost one

Unlike many unclaimed dead, Loyal Orem came from a family of means: His older brother founded Jerry’s Home Improvement Center in Eugene. His younger brother, Merritt Orem, said Loyal did not share in the business or his family’s life for decades.

“You know about schizophrenia?” he said.

As a young man, Loyal worked in the family sawmill and went on family hunting trips; Merritt said he was an excellent shot. But in early adulthood, mental illness took hold, and he was in and out of the state hospital. After each release, Merritt said, Loyal took his medication for a few weeks, then he would stop the meds and become ill again.

Loyal rarely contacted his brothers, but Merritt knew he lived on Social Security in a little trailer in Newport. He did not know about Loyal’s death Nov. 14, 2006, at 79 and his delivery to OHSU until months later when “someone from the state” called.

“It was a shock,” Merritt Orem said. “I finally talked to the funeral home guy in Newport, and he kind of claimed that he couldn’t get ahold of anybody. But then again, probably what he thought was the way Loyal was living down there, in that rickety old trailer just jammed with things in it, he probably thought Loyal didn’t have anybody.”

Yet, “I was kind of relieved that somebody else did take care of him. I got to thinking about it, that he was up there at the medical school, and maybe they would learn something about that schizophrenia. I thought: Maybe something good will come of it.”

Loyal Orem was probably one of the few unclaimed dead to have an estate probated. An old account held an inheritance of $81,468.82.

The ‘unofficial greeter’

Born in Colorado, the young Anita Floyd had ridden with a motorcycle gang, which was when she got the word “chick” tattooed on her right biceps. She did a stretch in prison for check fraud. She drank too much, got addicted to crack cocaine, abandoned two sons.

But in the stability of the informal family she built with Morgan and Wilson, she got sober and mellowed, especially after they moved to Portland in 2002 and she found her bench at Southwest Sixth and Alder. There, she became “an unofficial greeter for the city,” said Wilson, 38. “She loved Portland, and she wanted other people to love it, too.”

Thousands of office workers, business people and tourists passed her daily. Some refused to make eye contact with those smiling baby blues. Others slipped her a few dollars for her Marlboros and coffee or complimented her red hair, which had never dulled or grayed.

Her presence irritated a few business owners, and one coffee shop banned her. But the unpleasantness did not deter her.

“She sort of saw it as her job, saying hello to people, trying to make them smile,” said Morgan, 42. “We always worried about her. She had a tear in her heart. The doctor warned her to quit smoking, but she didn’t. She didn’t want us to worry, so she called me at 15 minutes before the hour, every hour, every day.”

In late 2006, Floyd and her boys lived in a small room at the Unicorn Inn Motel off Southeast 82nd Avenue. Morgan said she would leave at dawn to ride the MAX train downtown, happy about the day.

One morning in mid-November, Morgan realized with dread that he hadn’t heard from Mom. He and Wilson raced to Southwest Sixth and Alder. A business owner said Floyd had collapsed on the bench.

She lingered at Good Samaritan for two weeks, her heart failing. Her long red hair spilled over her pillow.

Morgan held Floyd’s medical power of attorney. As the end neared, he took her hand and bent to her ear.

Mom, do you want the doctors to do everything they can?

She shook her head. Then she squeezed Morgan’s hand.

Are you sure? Another squeeze.

We love you, Mom.

She whispered: Love you, boys.

The hospital social worker told Morgan and Wilson the state would pay to cremate the body and secure the remains. She forgot to mention the requirement of offering the body to OHSU.

A week later, the boys organized a memorial service at Mom’s bench. On the way, their anxiety rose. Maybe it was too soon. Or maybe they would be the only ones there. They got off the train, walked down Alder Street, turned the corner on Sixth, and what they saw stopped them cold.

What looked like 100 office workers, business owners and tourists had gathered, with flowers and poems, for the woman who loved saying hello, to anyone. They remembered Anita Marie Floyd that rainy December day, and they claimed her.

Two years passed. Morgan and Wilson moved to an apartment in Hillsboro, and Wilson got a job at a restaurant. They planned a garden. As they got on their feet, they thought about Mom every day. They wondered where she had come to rest.

Then in April, The Oregonian called with the unsettling news that a class of OHSU’s first-year medical students had learned about the marvels of the human body through Floyd, tattoo, red hair and all.

Stunned, the boys cried for days. They blamed the hospital. They blamed themselves. Then at last, they found a peace.

“We decided she would have been OK with that,” Morgan said. “And we’re OK with it. I wish they had told us. But at least we know where she is.”

READ – Newspaper pressed OHSU, state for release of records, The Oregonian
READ – Disposition of unclaimed bodies in U.S. varies by state, jurisdiction, The Oregonian
READ – Vote triples money to Indigent Burial Fund, The Oregonian

The unclaimed

The list below is the state’s Indigent Burial Fund, with the names of people whose bodies were cremated or sent to the OHSU anatomy lab from January 2000 until July 2009. This information is made available and searchable on the Internet so families may find lost relatives — or at least learn the final chapter of their history.

READ – Oregon Indigent Burial Fund, January 2000 until February 2011 (1 MB PDF) – 2354 unclaimed bodies of persons who died in Oregon

The records are dated by the month and year in which a funeral provider put in for reimbursement from the Indigent Burial Fund. Also listed for each name is the funeral provider, the city and telephone number.