Medical University Hospital staff members are searching for family members of two men who died there this past summer.
Thomas Stoerck, 68, died July 7. His last known address was in Mount Pleasant. James Bruner, 70, died Aug. 4. His last known address was in Charleston.
So far, nobody has stepped up to claim either man.
MUSC's coordinator of mortuary services, Julius Fielding, said this happens between four and six times each year. In about half of the cases, the hospital finds a family member, he said, and that feels good.
"Sometimes, it can bring some closure to a family searching for a loved one," he said. But with the other half of such cases, that doesn't happen, Fielding said.
When nobody claims a patient who died at the hospital, he said, mortuary services staff work with the Charleston County Coroner's Office to gather background information, such as previous addresses, or perhaps a Social Security number.
Then, they try to find relatives. If after tracking down all of their leads they still don't locate a family member, they petition the probate court to allow them to dispose of the person's remains. They most often have the individual cremated, he said.
Sometimes, he said, they find a family member who isn't interested in claiming the deceased person's body. Family members have said, "We've been estranged for 20 years, and I don't want anything to do with it," Fielding said.
Other times, a family member really wants to help but simply can't afford to.
Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, at a press conference Monday, said her office has seen an increase in bodies that are difficult to identify.
"Unfortunately, it seems to be a more and more common occurrence," she said.
That might be because Charleston's population is becoming increasingly transient, she said. The Coroner's Office has seen an increasing number of cases involving people who have only tenuous connections to the Charleston area, and who may have moved here only recently, she said.
Identifying a body isn't easy, Wooten said.
The public sometimes has the mistaken idea that investigators can just plug information into a database and wait for a computer to spit out results.
But that's not true, she said. To start comparing information such as dental records or DNA with an unidentified body, investigators need to have a pretty good idea of who somebody is.
Often, an ID card or a pay stub can supply the necessary link. When investigators don't have any of those clues, they struggle, she said.