Economists like to keep tabs on various sectors of the economy: Retail sales. Housing starts. Interest rates. But one of the truly invisible indicators of just how bad the economy has been lies at the county morgue. The number of unclaimed bodies left at the morgue has risen in the last year.
In part that's because families can't afford to come pick them up, and put them to rest.
It's a trend that's happening all over the country. In some places, the body count has risen as much as 50 percent over the last few years. But in King County, there's an effort underway to make sure even the unclaimed get a proper memorial. Carol Smith Reports.
Joe Frisino is chief investigator for the King County Medical Examiner's Office.
He has the job of trying to find relatives of the dead. If he can't, it's up to the County to dispose of the remains. And that's a job he takes seriously. Just because someone's body is abandoned, doesn't mean they didn't matter . . . to someone.
Frisno's division recently moved from its former quarters in the bowels of Harborview Medical Center to a new building a few blocks away.
Frisno: “We moved here in May, and the very nice thing this new building is we have natural light – it's amazing what it does for everybody, and the morale.”
The office is busy. By the middle of November, there were already about 200 bodies stored in the morgue. That's about as many as they had in total last year. Every one of those cases matters to Frisino.
He still recalls a case 13 years ago when a woman committed suicide after checking into a hotel with no identification. He never found her family.
Frisno: We don't know where she was from...Those are the ones that bother you. I don't know what to say. I wish we could get them all back to their families. That would be an ideal world.”
Sometimes Frisino turns to Mary Larson to help identify bodies. Or to find people connected to them.
Larson is a nurse at Seattle's Pioneer Clinic, where many of the city's homeless seek treatment. Frisino knows he can count on more than an ID from Larson.
Frisno: “Mary is one person, who's not just, “here's the paperwork, good night.” She knows these people. She knows about these people. She knows much more about these people than are in the medical records.”
Her patients may be homeless, but they're not faceless.
Larson: “We meet wonderful, very, very interesting people.
That's Mary Larson. If you get her started, she has lots of stories about the people who come through the clinic. She's met musicians, and poets, and professors. All of their lives took an unexpected turn that landed them on the street. Larson takes the time to learn the person behind the patient.
She's also an artist, and sometimes she paints their portraits as well.
Larson: “On this wall over here there's one gentleman who's died, and his name is David. His picture hangs in a certain place on the wall because he used to stand underneath it.”
David chose the place where he wanted his picture to hang. It's close to the front door.
Larson: “He used to really take great pride in the fact that he would watch us come and go from work, early in the mornings and late in the day when we were going home.”
Smith: And so he's still doing that.
Larson: “And he's still doing that, here on our wall. He's the one right behind the Christmas tree, with the red brick wall as his background. Because he really did just kind of blend in. “
But street life is hard on the body and the soul. Sometimes patients – like David -- die.
Until a few years ago, that was just a hard reality of her job. She didn't think to wonder where those patients ended up.
Then a patient named Manuel, who had been a fixture at the clinic for many years, passed away.
Larson went to a memorial service for him. The service was organized by some homeless advocates, and they had printed up a program flyer.
Larson: “And somewhere on that flyer, maybe on the back, it said: Bless Manuel. Someone who didn't make a ripple in the world, but who we really cared about. And I got really upset. And I thought every single person in the world makes a ripple, no matter what their life circumstance. ”
That's when Larson decided she needed to do something. That the unclaimed should not go unnoticed. She decided Manuel – and others like him -- needed a proper resting place with a proper marker.
And she had an idea. Larson contacted Frisino and offered to sell one of her paintings to pay for a headstone.
That painting actually paid for a stone bench that now marks the gravesite where King county unclaimed are buried in Renton. On the front of the bench, it says: “Gone, but not forgotten, these people of King County.” Since then, Larson has stayed involved and helped organize four more services, each for about 200 unclaimed people at a time.
Down at the morgue, Frisino is pleased with how King County now honors its least fortunate citizens. Especially as his body count rises.
Frisno: “There's a lot of them, it's not their fault they're in the situation they are. It's just nice to see something is done, and it's done with respect, and it's done with dignity, because everybody deserves that.”
Still, some might ask why bother to hold these memorials at all? The dead don't care. The families aren't there. Larson got her answer after a service last March. She was walking down the hall of the clinic the next day, and one of her patients was reading about the memorial.
Larson: “One of our patients was sitting there reading the newspaper, and he turned to me and he said can you come here a minute, and he reached in his pocket, and he reached in his pocket and he said I'd like to give you some money and he said, when I die someday, I hope that they take care of me like that.”
For KUOW News, I'm Carol Smith