Abandoned Death Notifications

Families Wait

The public believes that relatives are always notified following a murder.  But, according to PBS, Fox 26, WLBT, NPR, NBC News and other news outlets, that isn’t true.

Case in point…

Pauper’s Cemetery – Hinds County, Mississippi

 Ms. Bettersten Wade reported her son, 37-year-old Dexter, missing in March of 2023 to local law enforcement.  Several times.  She supplied police with a banquet of information. Only through persistence did she finally learn the horrid truth.  Dexter had been killed by an off-duty police officer driving on Interstate 55. The medical examiner found and turned over Dexter’s identification to the lead detective.  However, he never informed Ms. Wade that Dexter had died.  For several months Ms. Wade waited and worried.  She couldn’t have known he was inside a body bag in a shallow grave in a field behind Hinds County Penal Farm on County Farm Road in Raymond, Mississippi. His final resting place (outside Jackson) was impersonally marked by a metal pipe and number.

Dexter was exhumed last November. A formal autopsy followed and then a proper burial. But his mother’s heart was broken twice in the process.

Ms. Wade wants an apology and a full explanation.  “I want justice.  It’s wrong to take somebody’s child and bury them in a field.  I didn’t even get a chance to say anything to my child, to just say, babe, I love you.”

And then there is Marrio Moore, age 40.  He was beaten to death in Jackson in February of last year. He, too, was buried in the pauper’s field inside an unmarked grave on the same day as Dexter Wade.  His family did not learn of his death until eight months after his murder when they saw his name on a local news website.

In November 2023, Jackson Police Chief Joseph Wade announced a new six-page death notification policy.  In part, it states that next of kin or significant others will be provided “prompt notification” of a death. https://www.mississippifreepress.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/23-1893-600-37-Death-Notifications_cred-JPD.pdf

As more bodies were exhumed from the field, buzzards and news cameras hovered.

According to a report in The Hilltop by Daryn O’Neal in January of 2024, since 2008 approximately 330 people have been interred in the pauper’s field in unmarked graves.  However, the facts were disputed by Mayor Chokwe Lumumba almost immediately.  He characterized the news stories as “sensational rumors” and “entirely inaccurate and harmful.”

But the deaths in Jackson are not isolated.  According to NBC News, families across the U.S. are waiting months or years without being told their loved ones have passed away. 

We have a broken, patchwork death notification system that leaves relatives waiting in limbo.

NamUs

It’s a perfect storm. For one thing, too many coroners and medical examiners do not use a free federal database to help link missing people with known decedents.  It’s called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (or NamUs ).  Anyone can have access.   Many families search through it but find nothing. https://www.namus.gov/MissingPersons/Search

When families cannot be located by coroners or law enforcement too often there is no follow-up – no attempt to even post the names of the unclaimed to NamUs or announce it in the newspaper.  All postings are voluntary. According to NBC News “In 90% of counties nationally – including a majority of those with populations above 200,000 – not a single active unclaimed person case was listed in NamUs over the past five years.”

According to Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist in South Florida, “The tools exist to solve many or most of these cases.  It’s a matter of having the will to do it.”

But it’s also a matter of staffing. In defense of law enforcement, the total number of sworn officers nationwide was 4.8 percent lower in January of 2023 than January of 2020. Resignations and early retirements have risen. The nation faces an unprecedented police shortage for at least three reasons. One is the difficulty of attracting suitable candidates for the job. A second is simply burnout caused by increased workloads and tension with the public. When pressed between finding an abducted child or trying to find the family of an unidentified deceased person, the former is going to get the attention. A third roadblock is pay.

One death professional bucking the trend is Chuck Heurich, a senior physical scientist at the National Institute of Justice and program manager for NamUs.  He’s taken his message on the road, attending state coroner associations and national medical examiner conferences. His goal is simple: raise awareness about NamUs.  His first question whenever he comes up to the podium is “Who has heard of NamUs?”  He’s always dismayed at the vacant looks.

The problem is widespread enough that NBC News launched a five-part series called “Lost Rites” in 2023.  https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/nbc-lost-rites-2023/index.html

The not knowing is a certain kind of hell for the families.  It takes an incremental toll on their health, jobs, and relationships.  It chafes certain religious beliefs.  Catholic funerals are supposed to happen within three days, and Jewish and Muslim funerals are to be held immediately.

The families of two Black women who died on the same day in 2021 in Connecticut without notification have pushed for a bill to require police to notify families of the death of a loved one within 24 hours.

So, what can families with missing relatives do? Here are five suggestions.

l) Be a thorn in the side of the coroner or medical examiner. Call regularly. Be polite but don’t be silent.

2) Post on NamUs

3) If possible, hire a retired police officer or detective to assist you.

4) Learn what the death notification policy is in your area (or if there’s even one in place) and attend a city council meeting to improve it if necessary. All they need to do is adopt one similar to the policy in Jackson, Mississippi.

5) Host a “missing persons” weekend at least annually with a consortium of nearby communities. Invite the media, cadaver dog handlers, search and rescue volunteers, law enforcement, the district attorney, victim advocates, social media experts, criminal justice students, and police officers (especially those working in victim services).

Across the country, we are more diligent with reporting the weather than sudden death.  There is a lack of awareness and training surrounding death notifications among law enforcement, coroners, and hospital personnel.  While there is no easy or painless way to say “Your loved one has died” it’s no less painful to learn of the death accidentally or after a long delay.

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

Click this Amazon link:   https://www.amazon.com/What-Now-Navigating-Aftermath-Homicide-ebook/dp/B0BXND9DQR

I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

Check out my books and get tools and resources to help you or someone you love!