KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Inside Eastview Memorial Gardens lay thousands of graves: mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.
In the mausoleum up the hill is a vault that reads ‘In Loving Memory.’ A family doesn't own this vault, and the people inside are not related.
Inside are the cremated remains, or cremains, of 70 unclaimed people from across the region, most from Knox or Anderson Counties. The earliest unclaimed person was placed at the mausoleum nearly a decade ago on Nov. 24, 2009. The latest was on April 14, 2019.
The Knox County Regional Forensic Center purchased the vault years ago. Now, it’s almost full.
"We only have room for about 30 more, which we will exhaust very quickly,” said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic. “We already plan on purchasing another one."
What does it mean to be ‘unclaimed’
When a person dies under certain circumstances, like a medical or legal death, their bodies are brought to the Regional Forensic Center in Knox County. The Regional Forensic Center encompasses the Office of the Medical Examiner for Knox and Anderson Counties. The center serves an additional 22 other surrounding counties with autopsy service.
Mileusnic explains many of these unclaimed individuals were homeless or reclusive.
"Their stories are varied,” said Mileusnic. “Sometimes very rich and very sad sometimes."
Autopsies are performed on the bodies to determine the cause and matter of death. Police work to notify the victim's family. Once the investigation is complete, if no one collects the body -- the county picks up the cost.
"We've dealt with this for over a decade and it's kind of increasing in intensity,” said Mileusnic.
Tennessee law only requires local governments to hold these bodies for one week before cremating or burying the person. But the Regional Forensic Center in Knox County tries a different approach to before making such a big decision.
"We pretty much use a one month, 30-day period to exhaust all options,” said Mileusnic. “Then we go forward with cremations."
How much does this cost the county?
Before moving them to the vault, the remains are stored in a locked room that few have access to inside the building.
It costs the county more than $325 to cremate one body. They've done 33 cremations so far this year. That's $10,725.
According to county records:
In 2016, the county cremated 35 bodies. That’s roughly $11,375.
In 2017, the county cremated 23 bodies. That’s roughly $7,475.
In 2018, The county cremated 35 bodies. That’s another $11,375.
These costs do not include transportation to the cemetery, opening the mausoleum, keeping track of the cremains inside, or administrative costs required by the Vital Records department to create and register a death certificate.
How much does this cost a family?
Claiming a body once it’s cremated can be an extra expense for families that do come forward. For entombment, cremation, transportation and administration costs, a family could pay nearly $1,500 to reclaim their loved one.
What if the person is a veteran?
Homeless veterans receive a hero's homecoming with full military honors.
It's a free service given by the National Dignity Memorial Homeless Veteran burial program.
"I think it’s very important to honor these veterans and give them the recognition that they deserve," said Jeff Berry with Berry Funeral Home.
The program is nationwide in 36 cities, holding more than 2,000 services. Seventy services were held in Knoxville.
Why it matters
For those who are not veterans and who remain unclaimed, the vault in Eastview Memorial Gardens may be their final resting place.
“These individuals were somebody's loved one. That's why they have to be dealt with properly," said Mileusnic.
Leaders believe purchasing more vaults is not an ideal solution to this growing problem, but it’s a step forward.
‘Our purchase of that individual vault showed the way for many other organizations and hospitals in the community on how to deal with this situation,” said Mileusnic. “It is reassuring to us that we are doing something positive in at the time of tragedy for individuals who cannot afford it. But I believe that everyone deserves a little bit better.”
How to claim a loved one
Eastview Memorial Gardens has a chart of stored cremains in the mausoleum. Occasionally the relatives still go there to pay respects.
Click here for a list of those who remain unclaimed inside the mausoleum.
You can claim your loved by calling the Regional Forensic Center at (865) 215-8000.