Friday, March 22, 2013

Using the Internet to Identify the Dead

Cook County Medical Examiner's
Two weeks ago the Cook County Illinois Medical Examiner’s Office made a bold move.  The office began releasing photos of unidentified dead bodies on its webpage.  The hope is that someone might be able to ID a missing family member or friend from the photos.  But the move has sparked controversy.

Dr Steve Cina

The photos of decaying corpses have been called too graphic, disturbing, and insensitive. But the Cook County Medical Examiner, Dr Steve Cina, feels that it’s worth the discomfort if the photos help a family find a loved one.

An unidentified person (UP) is a person who has died and his/her body has not been identified. Once normal channels have been exhausted in trying to gain identification, a coroner or medical examiner may post a photo and information on the UP site in hopes that it triggers someone's memory, or that someone recognizes the person and can identify them.

Information about those who have not been identified can be found on the Cook County Medical Examiner’s (CCME) website under “Unidentified Persons”,_office_of/307/unidentified_persons/735.

A physical description of the person including sex, race, and the clothes they were wearing, along with descriptive body features such as height, birthmarks, tattoos, or dental information can be used. Photos on the site are updated biweekly. 

All of the photos are watermarked by the Medical Examiner’s office and include a disclaimer of the ”potentially graphic nature of the images.”

But, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office is not the first to place photos of the deceased online in an attempt to discover their identities.  In fact, the CCME worked in conjunction with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) to create their page.

NamUs is a searchable database funded by the National Institute of Justice and managed by the UNT Health Science Center.  It was also created in an attempt to discover whom these unidentified persons are. 

Searches can be conducted by using demographics, case numbers, physical characteristics, or other specific information. New cases are added each day by medical examiners and coroners across the U.S.

Currently, NamUs has almost 10,000 unidentified persons in their database.  Fewer than 10% of the remains have been identified and those cases closed. Just over 90% of the cases remain open. Close to two million people have visited the site since it began in 2010.

Cook County Morgue
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office currently has several unidentified persons, some still waiting to be identified after four years. The office also has close to 50 bodies that are identified but unclaimed.

An unclaimed person (UCP) is someone whose body has been identified but no next of kin have been found, or if the family has been located, they cannot afford to pay for a funeral, or they do not want to accept responsibility for the body. In 2011, Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office began donating unclaimed remains to the Anatomical Gift Association (AGA) within two weeks after arrival there. 

Once the body is picked up, the AGA is then required to wait 21 days before embalming it and another 60 days for next of kin to be located or come forward.  If, after that time, no one has claimed the body the AGA may use the body for medical research and subsequent cremation.

The Doe Network is an organization ran by volunteers that includes searchable websites for unidentified and missing persons from around the U.S.  The organization has been active for 12 years and has been recognized by the Department of Justice.

Fifteen sites are listed that deal with unidentified remains, unexplained disappearances, and missing persons. Unidentified remains may be from the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, or other countries. The network deals with hot and cold cases.

Besides Illinois, other states listed on the Doe Network are Kentucky, Iowa, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Nevada, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Tennessee. Almost four million visitors have visited the site since it began in 2001.

Although the photos may be considered disturbing, they do serve a very real purpose.  There is an estimated 40,000 remains currently unidentified in the U.S.  Sites such as these could help countless families and friends find out what happened to someone dear.

It is often said “You can judge a society by how it treats its dead.”  It is time we allow those who have remained nameless to be identified and bring some sense of closure to those lives. 
And the internet may be the most effective way for us to do this...

~ Joy


  1. How very, very interesting, I don't think we have anything like that here in the UK.
    On the one hand it sounds a rather morbid idea, but the peace of mind that it must give to those who need to know what has happened to their missing loved ones, is a gift beyond value.
    Thanks for such an informative blog.....

  2. Thank you! I 'm always interested in finding out what they are doing, or not, in other places. Hopefully, this will help some families find closure.