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Unidentified Human Remains: How Many are There in the U.S.? What Happens to Them?

The United States currently has an extensive, growing backlog of unidentified human remains, from murder and accident victims, homeless people and other missing person cases who died of natural causes.

unidentified human remains

Many of the people who go missing in the United States are murder victims.

U.S. medical examiner and coroners' offices receive an estimated 4,400 unidentified human bodies every year, according to the first national census of medical-legal death investigations, "Medical Examiners and Coroners' Offices, 2004." Of these, about 1,000 are still unidentified after one year, and 600 are buried or cremated.

Though the remains represent a "critical component in the nation's effort to resolve missing persons cases,'' according to the report, only half of the medical examiners and coroners' offices surveyed in 2004 had policies for retaining records on unidentified human remains, such as x-rays, DNA, or fingerprints, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found.

The report highlights an urgent need for a comprehensive system to keep track of such remains, as advances in DNA and other forensic technology have made it increasingly possible to identify remains and find criminals involved.

"The missing link has been a good inventory of remains," said Jeffrey Sedgwick, director of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in a USA Today article.

In all, it's estimated that upwards of 40,000 unidentified human remains exist in medical examiners and coroners' offices, or were buried or cremated before they were identified.

An Initiative to Help the Missing

The FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a database that includes criminal record history information, fugitives, stolen properties and missing persons and is available to law enforcement officials 24/7, 365 days a year, is one current method being used to help solve missing persons and unidentified human remains cases.

unidentified human remains

Cleveland, Ohio has unidentified remains from one of the "coldest cases" on record; they date back to 1900.

However, of the estimated 40,000 unidentified remains out there, only about 6,000 -- or 15 percent -- have been entered into the NCIC, largely because the volume of is simply too great.

Over half of the nation's unidentified remains are held in large offices in five cities:

  • New York, New York

  • Cleveland, Ohio

  • Los Angeles, California

  • Houston, Texas

  • San Bernardino, California

Meanwhile, while cases of missing persons 18 and under must be reported, only a few states require law enforcement agencies to report missing persons cases for adults -- it's all voluntary.

Since so many missing persons cases have never been entered into a national database, and only half of coroners' and medical examiners' offices routinely take DNA or fingerprints from unidentified remains before disposing of them, a large number of crimes could be going needlessly unsolved.

In response, the Office of Justice Program's National Institute of Justice has launched, in July 2007, The National Missing and Unidentified Persons Initiative (NamUs).

The initiative involves two programs:

The databases are geared not only to law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners, but also to families and the general public who are looking for a loved one. They allow users to search for potential matches between missing persons and unidentified human remains records, and will hopefully bring some closure to families who are searching for someone -- and justice to any criminals involved.

Recommended Reading

The Top 5 Most Dangerous & Least Dangerous U.S. Cities: See if Your City Made the List!

Does Organ Harvesting Really Exist?


National Institute of Justice

NamUS -- National Missing and Unidentified Persons System June 24, 2007

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Medical Examiners and Coroners' Offices, 2004

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