Unclaimed bodies in the DMV: The lost lives no one claims continues to rise

WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's something most of us could never imagine--dying alone.

Across the country, thousands of people lose their lives every year and have no one to claim their remains, including hundreds across the DMV just this past year.

The reasons range from homelessness, to no loved ones, estranged family members, and financial struggles.

55-year-old Robert Gerner, of Triangle, Virginia, was destined to be one of them.

Known to friends as Bobby, Gerner was killed while crossing a road back in November. He was found in the middle of the roadway, and police said the car that hit him took off.

He later died in a Fairfax hospital, but when it came time to notify the family, they couldn't find anyone.

"It was really devastating because you know someone just hit him and just took off," says Marvin Dent, a close family friend. "Both his parents, they were both gone, he had no next of kin at all he was adopted."

Captain Heath Stearns with the Prince William County Sheriff's Office got the call from the hospital when they were unable to find family.

He receives these types of calls several times a year.

Virginia State Law requires that law enforcement handle the unclaimed bodies of those that resided in their jurisdiction.

While counties have chosen to handle this in different ways, the Prince William County Sheriff's Office has handled the process for years.

"It's kind of a long process it normally takes 2 to 3 months, in some cases that's kind of a quick scenario," says Captain Stearns.

The Sheriff's Office must to do everything they can to find the persons' relatives.

If they can't, they have to pay for a cremation and burial.

Captain Stearns says his department did that five times last year, and as of late March this year, they've paid for three.

Across the river in DC, the unclaimed go to the Medical Examiner's Office, where they stay for thirty days.

If no family shows up, taxpayer money pays for a cremation and the remains go into a joint burial site. The most recent online data shows 157 unclaimed in the district in 2016.

In Maryland, Director of the State Anatomy Board, Ron Wade, says they deal with unclaimed bodies by the thousands throughout the year.

They handle the process for the entire state and after fourteen days they will cremate the body.

Wade also administers the body donor program where they prepare bodies of men and
women who vowed to donate themselves to science and education.

Between those numbers and unclaimed, he anticipates more than 3,000 bodies coming through this year. If the person has no assets to help, each cremation can cost around 400 dollars.

Every year they hold a mass burial at a designated gravesite behind the Springfield Hospital Center.

"It's not a bureaucratic thing, it's a human thing," Wade says. "The main issue we have is peace of mind for the family left behind."

Captain Stearns says peace of mind is his focus too.

He has testified in front of a judge many times to say the office did everything they could to find a family. In that case, they will also cremate the body and bury the remains in a joint gravesite at the Woodbine Cemetery in Manassas.

Bobby Gerner seemed destined to end up in a joint grave, but then the county found his home away from home--a triangle barber shop where bobby spent most of his days.

"He's always been in here, and he still is, I got his ashes over there in the corner," says Timothy Skodacek, Owner of Triangle Barber Shop.

After finding no blood relatives, a Prince William County judge allowed the Sheriff's Office to turn the remains over to Marvin Dent, a family friend.

They left some ashes at the barber shop, others they plan to spread the at his parents' gravesite.

Through community donations, they bought a plot at the Dumfries Cemetery, and they held a funeral service.

"We probably expected maybe like 15 to 20 people to show up, but the church was literally packed," says Dent.

"We gave him a good sending away," says Richard Pyle, a friend of Bobby's.

It's a sending away that many across the DMV will not have, but they will always have a place to go.

"It’s a gratifying experience to some extent but then on the other hand of it it’s kind of a reality check," says Captain Stearns.

"This may be your family member, this could be a family member of your own."