March 2024

The Unclaimed

Review by
Gripping and groundbreaking, The Unclaimed investigates the Americans who are abandoned in death and what they tell us about how we treat the living.
Share this Article:

As many as 114,000 Americans who die each year are unclaimed by relatives. Their remains are buried without ceremony, often in mass graves, unwitnessed by anyone who knew them. What circumstances conspire for human beings to meet this end? And what do their deaths say about how we treat the living? Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans unearth some of their stories, unpacking questions both existential and practical in their groundbreaking The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels.

The authors spent eight years investigating the bureaucratic hurdles, legislative failings and social ruptures that contribute to 1,600 unclaimed people in Los Angeles each year. Los Angeles County law stipulates that only next-of-kin can claim remains, but 1 in 4 adult Americans report being estranged from close family members. When relatives can be located, the costs associated with claiming remains are often too steep for them to bear; other times, they have no interest in claiming at all. What’s more, “bureaucratic apathy” and a muddled system relies on three separate departments to investigate the unclaimed.

The Unclaimed follows the stories of four Angelenos who went unclaimed for very different reasons: a reclusive elderly woman whose few surviving family members refused to claim her; a middle-aged woman beloved by her church family who, by law, could not claim and bury her; a veteran who slipped through the cracks; and a quiet man whose assets granted him a funeral that no one attended. Prickett and Timmermans also portray the death investigators who try to locate relatives with varying degrees of success; these civil servants are frustrated and exhausted, their departments understaffed and under-resourced. And the portraits the authors paint of the two civil servants who inter the unclaimed at the Boyle Heights cemetery—the “potter’s field” of L.A.—are extremely moving. Relying on 231 interviews, direct observation of death investigations, extensive research into 600 deaths, attendance of dozens of funerals and cremations, and more, Prickett and Timmermans humanize the dead with aching specificity, granting these few the honor that so many others deserve.

“If you die and no one calls out for you, did your life have meaning?” the authors ask. As the subtitle of the book suggests, there is hope, because more and more people are answering that call. In 2017, a pastor began organizing a memorial service for the unclaimed that draws droves of witnesses; veterans congregate to send off their siblings in arms; a nonprofit buries unclaimed infants in a special cemetery. The writing in this last third of the book sometimes veers into sentimentality, naming conclusions that readers can recognize themselves. But on the whole, The Unclaimed is a gripping and compassionate account that leaves us with a feeling of social and personal responsibility for our kin, our community and ourselves.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.