Originally created 02/15/99

County collects unclaimed remains



A ghost house caught out of time, the Hephzibah trailer is sagging, rusting, but essentially unchanged from the sweltering summer day seven months ago when officials broke in through a window to find Albert Brown's body.

Once a month, Deputy Coroner Grover Tuten unseals the trailer and pours bleach over the spot where Mr. Brown's body was found -- to ensure there is no health hazard. Otherwise, no one has entered the trailer since June.

No one has broken the echoing silence, left footprints on the dusty floors, cleaned out the refrigerator, moved the jar of honey or piles of papers on a dining room table, opened the curtains that cover blank windows.

Mr. Brown died as he lived, left alone after his wife's death years earlier and the killing of his only son, Mark, in a holdup at a Domino's Pizza store in 1994.

His exile continues today as he was one of 19 Richmond County bodies unclaimed in 1998 -- one of those whose ashes still sit in area funeral homes awaiting burial.

The Richmond County Coroner's Office already has two more unclaimed bodies this year, a 65-year-old woman who died at St. Joseph's Hospital and a 46-year-old homeless man who died on Applejack Terrace.

The woman, who had been living at an area nursing home, hadn't been in contact with her family for years.

The man, an alcoholic being treated as an outpatient from Augusta's Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers, had lived in five different apartments in the past year, staying at each until his monthly disability check ran out.

In both 1999 deaths, family members tracked down by the coroner's office refused to accept the bodies, Mr. Tuten said.

The woman's brother, also in his 60s, didn't have money for a funeral. Family members for the 46-year-old man, whom he hadn't seen in 20 years, simply refused to take his body.

"That happens in about half the cases we have," the deputy coroner said. "It's about 50-50 -- not being able to find a relative or relatives not accepting the body."

The bodies are cremated by court order. The coroner's office receives $250 from the county for cremation and burial of each body, although a typical cremation usually costs about $900.

Many "cremains" are likely to end up in the city's Potter's Field, a curiously barren plot of ground in Magnolia Cemetery where the paupers' graves lie.

Many graves are unmarked, leaving a wide swath of dried grass and bare dirt oddly empty in comparison to the age-stained white monuments and headstones that crowd surrounding sections.

Ashes are buried there, in mass graves, in individual urns. A minister performs a lonely ceremony at the site.

Sometimes, if he isn't busy with his job, Mr. Tuten tries to attend. Otherwise, the unclaimed dead go to their resting place without fanfare, alone in death as they so often were in life.

The last mass burial was in 1995. The next will be held when officials judge there are enough urns, but it hasn't been set yet.

Sometimes, if there is property that can be seized, the coroner's office can help arrange a more intricate funeral and perhaps provide a headstone, Mr. Tuten said.

"Whatever level of money you have, that's the level of burial you get," he said philosophically.

Some of the ashes have already been given burials by civic groups.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars will provide plots for some former servicemen, and churches -- usually rural congregations with their own cemeteries -- occasionally provide space for parishioners.

A chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous may see to burial for a member. Even the Daughters of the American Revolution have provided for burial when no one else claimed cremated remains, Mr. Tuten said.

"If we determine there is no living next-of-kin, and there is someone who can show they will take charge and provide for a proper burial, we will release it (the cremated body) to them -- but only after going through the proper channels," said Philip Byrd of Elliott Sons Funeral Homes, where the cremated remains of Mr. Brown and one or two other unclaimed bodies are stored awaiting burial.

"There are so many legal concerns to be taken care of. It's not like someone can just walk in the door and take them. Our first questions are `How do I know who you are? What connection do you have to them? What are you planning to do?' There are certain legal documents that have to be filled out. It's not a simple process."

Mr. Brown is waiting for courts to clear up his estate, which neighbors say he wanted to leave to one of his wife's nephews. But because the man had no ties to Mr. Brown by blood, only marriage, the state of Georgia doesn't recognize him as an heir.

So the estate -- and Mr. Brown's cremated remains -- are in a legal limbo. The county seized his truck to get money to pay for disposal of his body.

When the details are worked out, he will be luckier than many whose bodies are unclaimed.

Plans are to inter him with his wife in Sunset Memory Gardens in Langley, the same cemetery where his son is buried. Neighbors plan to attend the burial.

Meanwhile, the window that officials used to enter Mr. Brown's home seven months ago still stands open. A light left on when rescue workers finished their duties shone until the bulb burned out, said Mechelle Rondeau, who lives next door.

Power and water were only recently turned off by utility companies, neighbors said -- there was no one to arrange for cut-off.

A postal worker delivered mail to the rusted-out mailbox just last month, added neighbor Shannon George.

"It's just sad, because the whole family is gone," said neighbor Gloria Day.

Alisa DeMao can be reached at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.