Identifying the unidentified: Coroner’s process to finding families

LOWNDES COUNTY, Miss. (WCBI) – A coroner is often the first to notify families of the worst news they’ll probably ever receive: the death of a loved one.

But before he can contact anyone, he has to know who the deceased person is.

Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant was still trying to contact family from the fatal dui incident this past weekend.

He said the process of contacting relatives could be challenging if the victim didn’t leave many clues to follow when they were alive.

“That’s the worst thing in the world: is to knock on somebody’s door at 2 o’clock in the morning and tell them somebody’s not coming home,” said Merchant.

Merchant has over 20 years of experience notifying family members about the death of a loved one.

And as challenging as that responsibility can be, it’s made even more difficult if the body can’t be identified.

In some situations where a body is found without identification, tattoos, and dental records are the only means of learning who the victim was.

“People sometimes have very unique tattoos. The location of a tattoo, a date, either the birth of a child, or death of a parent, or the death of a grandparent. There’s some identifying mark there,” said Merchant.

Well, everybody has a cell phone, right? Not everyone, and even when there is one, most times, it’s locked.

“Our cell phone now is our sole piece of everything. People use that for their identification, and so forth. They lock those things with a passcode that we can’t access, which creates a difficult situation,” said Merchant.

So, what happens if the body can’t be identified?

State law gives paupers or unclaimed bodies the right to a decent burial.

“What the board of supervisors has accepted is someone who is indigent, someone who has no family, no money, no place to live, no home, no automobile or anything,” said Merchant.

In those cases in Lowndes County, the body is usually cremated.

Merchant urged people to always carry some form of identification on them, in case it’s ever needed.

“The smallest bit of information can sometimes be huge,” said Merchant.

If you have an iPhone, you have the option to set up your medical ID.

In an emergency, first responders can look at your medical ID for your personal identification as well as your chosen emergency contacts.

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