Tom Chapman, the chaplain, wore a wide-brim hat for shade in the treeless expanse and prayed. He called out Anderson’s name, and those of five other women and eight men. Not one had a relative or friend to hear him.
“There but for the grace of God we all could be,” Chapman said quietly before turning to leave.
Every week, there is a similar lonesome service at Maricopa County’s White Tanks Cemetery, where a record 551 people were laid to rest last year, part of a nationwide surge of unclaimed bodies.
There are no official statistics about how many unclaimed bodies are buried across America, but a Washington Post investigation that included more than 100 interviews over six months with medical examiners and local officials from Maine to California found that every year tens of thousands of lives end this way.
Covid-19 increased the number of unclaimed bodies in many places, including Maricopa, which had a 30 percent spike, according to the investigation.
But even before the pandemic, this was a growing problem. A rare federally funded study published in 2020 found that in recent years in Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous, 2 to 3 percent of about 60,000 deaths per year resulted in an unclaimed body.
Maryland, unlike most states, tracks the unclaimed in all its cities and towns, and has seen the number climb steadily in recent years. Last year during the pandemic, Maryland’s 2,510 unclaimed bodies accounted for more than 4 percent of all deaths.
Conservative estimates are that 1 percent of all deaths result in an unclaimed body, which would mean that last year, when 3.4 million Americans died, there were 34,000 bodies left for local governments to bury.
But many coroners and others who handle these bodies say the national figure could be as high as 3 percent, which would bring the unclaimed count to more than 100,000.
Across the country, big cities and small towns increasingly have become the funeral director of last resort.
“It’s very jarring,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns in Connecticut. “These people have lost their connections.”
Patrick Kearney, a state representative in Massachusetts, said the large number of unclaimed bodies is a red alert that American families are in crisis. “At its core, it’s about the country not addressing the issues that are tearing families apart,” he said.
Unclaimed bodies are distinct from unidentified bodies. Often, quite a bit of information is known and local officials are able to track down relatives. But many decline to take on the responsibility, sometimes citing the cost of a funeral and burial, which can easily run over $7,500.
Several county coroners said they first started noticing families abandoning relatives’ bodies in hospitals in 2008 during the Great Recession. Funeral costs kept rising as incomes sank.
Then the opioid epidemic sent the number of unclaimed bodies soaring.
“It’s a mix of economic and societal issues,” said Adam Puche, chairman of the Maryland board that handles the unclaimed. “It is tough economic times at the moment and funerals are expensive. Families are perhaps less connected to each other than in previous generations.”
Sheriffs, medical examiners, local social service workers and others dealing with the unclaimed say a confluence of other factors contributes to the rise. Many people pull up anchor, move and marry often and completely lose touch with close family members — the people who, by law, are asked to make burial arrangements if no executor of a person’s own wishes has been named in advance.
Some people outlive all close relatives. Some local officials say they see more isolated people, and note that without any human contact, people can work, watch movies and grocery shop from home — even get a beer from the corner bar delivered to their door.
One common pattern is a struggle with severe depression, drug abuse or some other mental health disorder that went untreated and shattered the family.
“We’ve had some people say, ‘I’m glad they’re dead. … I hope they burn in hell,’” said Lindsey Sales, who runs the Maricopa office that deals with the unclaimed.
Maricopa, which now employs five full-time researchers to track down family members, spends about $1 million a year to handle its unclaimed.
In Anderson’s case, police had her driver’s license and investigators sought to identify her family. They mailed 13 letters to possible relatives. Her sister received one, but never responded. The county reached Anderson’s daughter, but a lack of money and a lifetime of heartache kept her from coming.
Anderson, who died in December, grew up in Utah, a blonde, hazel-eyed girl who adored her father, a United Airlines pilot. She married at 18 and had a baby at 19.
But happiness never lasted. Neither did Anderson’s two marriages, or any job. At one point, she moved to Las Vegas and worked at a casino. Her family didn’t understand why she allowed herself to be drawn to people, places and things that only seemed to make her life worse.
Before Anderson’s daughter, Milissa, was old enough for kindergarten, her mother would go to bars and leave her home alone, she said. When Milissa’s father came home from work, he was furious.
“I do remember a bit about that time period, just watching ‘The Little Mermaid’ on VHS a lot,” said Milissa, now 33.
Her parents soon split and Milissa first lived with her father. By high school, she was back with her mother, who tried to steady her life, earned a degree from community college and worked as an accountant.
But in her early 30s, with a second daughter from a brief, tumultuous marriage, Anderson was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“She would drink to keep the voices out,” Milissa said.
Her mother heard people at the door who were not there, and was constantly saying people were trying to break into their house. “I would go out with flashlights and check and try to show her that no one was there,” Milissa said.
Ten years ago, after Anderson lost her job and was drinking way too much tequila and vodka, she was evicted from her public housing apartment in Fort Collins, Colo. Milissa was 23 and living nearby with her in-laws. She helped move her mother’s few belongings into storage and gave her money to stay at a motel.
Later that week, over Thanksgiving dinner, she planned to tell her mother that she was pregnant, that Anderson would be a grandmother. Then they could figure out a plan for where she would live.
But the day before Thanksgiving, her mother called. “She was completely drunk and had really, really loud opera music going on in the background that was drowning out anything she said.”
Milissa was abrupt: “Be sober, I’m picking you up tomorrow night.”
Those were the last words she said to her mother. When she arrived the next day, her mom had left the motel. A few months later, Milissa filed a missing person’s report with the Fort Collins police. “I had a police officer come over and talk to me, and he told me sometimes people just don’t want to be found. That’s kind of where I gave up.”
On Dec. 3, 2020, at 10:23 p.m., in a tiny efficiency apartment east of Phoenix, paramedics pronounced Marjorie Anderson dead.
She had been living in the low-rent Desert Lodge with a man 20 years older. She had met Ronald Opachinski eight years earlier, at a Catholic church community center that served hot food to the homeless. He was volunteering and she was hungry. They hit it off. He found her funny and intelligent. She was broke, her family was in Colorado. She soon accepted his offer to share his apartment.
Twenty-five years before they met, Opachinski had been convicted of attempted sexual abuse of a minor, and he had spent more than a decade in prison. The Air Force veteran with a learning disability found it impossible to land a decent job. He was tidy and earned cash doing building maintenance or hauling trash.
“She was the best thing I ever had,” he said of Anderson. He said “Margie” didn’t think he was a bad guy. He said he didn’t know where she went on the bus sometimes or how she got all the pills she took. Her health was failing, she used a walker, and he did his best to help her.
He pointed to the pile of blankets where he slept on the floor and the narrow sofa where she died. While there may have been romance in the beginning, he said they had become “like brother and sister.”
Opachinski called 911 when she started gagging and vomiting in her sleep. When he tried to roll her on her side to keep her from choking, she slipped to the floor. By the time the ambulance arrived she had stopped breathing.
For four hours, police investigators came and went, studying the scene, talking to Opachinski and neighbors, examining Anderson’s considerable stash of prescriptions. She had lots of pills — some meant to treat mood swings, others for depression, still more for pain.
At 2 a.m., Anderson’s body was lifted onto a gurney and driven to the medical examiner’s office. There, an autopsy found acute levels of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid used to ease severe pain, and her death was ruled an accidental overdose.
With Anderson’s body in a county morgue filling with people dying from covid-19, the search was on for someone to bury her.
Because Anderson had no will laying out her own burial arrangements and no spouse, according to Arizona state law "the duty of burying the body” fell to her adult children.
If no child exists or agrees to make the arrangements, the duty falls to parents, then to siblings. And, if no relative steps forward, “an adult who exhibited special care and concern for the dead person” is asked.
Police started looking for Anderson’s daughters.
A detective, with access to birth and health records and other government databases, found Milissa in Colorado, while she was working as a medical assistant in a nursing home.
“Do you know Marjorie Ann Anderson?”
Her heart fluttered.
She had never stopped wondering where her mother was. For a second she thought she might somehow have her back. But then the detective said she died near Phoenix, nearly 1,000 miles away, and told her where she could claim her body.
As Milissa hung up, she relived that Thanksgiving, back in 2011, when she went to get her mother but found an empty motel room.
As time passed, she had made sure to keep her same phone number, hoping her mother might call. Anderson’s sister also kept her landline long after it was useful.
“None of us got a f---ing call,” Milissa said.
Heidi, Anderson’s younger daughter, was only 16 when her mother walked away. She is now married and works in a Colorado retail store but said news of her mother’s death, “really opened up some trauma,” about the years her mother neglected her and she went to live with her grandparents. She feels her mother robbed her of a normal childhood. She only met her father after finding him on Facebook when she was a teenager.
“I’m still kind of jarred why you care so much about my family’s situation/background,” Heidi texted a reporter, after a phone conversation about her mother. “I know she has passed but it just seems strange for someone to care so much for someone who didn’t care for anyone else.”
Despite their volatile relationship, Milissa also remembered the good days. She was haunted by their final conversation. “I was blaming myself,” she said.
After her mother was buried, she was stunned to learn from a Washington Post reporter that 10 years ago when she thought her mother had walked out on her, she was actually locked up in jail.
Records show that Fort Collins police arrested Anderson on Nov. 24, 2011 — Thanksgiving Day — for violating her probation related to a misdemeanor conviction.
A few months before, Anderson, in a delusional state, had attacked Milissa, tried to choke her and bit her on the arm. Milissa was so upset she called the police, who charged her mother with misdemeanor assault.
Anderson was sentenced to one year’s probation and ordered to stop using alcohol or drugs, including medical marijuana, and to take her prescription medications, according to Larimer County court records. At some point, she violated her probation. The court records do not explain what she did, but drinking alcohol could have triggered her arrest.
A police officer picked her up on Thanksgiving Day and she spent the next five nights in jail.
When the judge released her, she was ordered her to pay $758 in court costs. She did not have the money, but if she didn’t pay, she could be arrested again.
So Anderson vanished and wound up in Arizona.
Milissa is angry that the police never told her that they had her mother in custody. She now thinks that when her mother disappeared, maybe she was running from the law, not her family. “I understand her actions and motivations a bit more now.”
But it’s too late, she said: “She’s gone.”
Anderson’s family felt the health system failed her and her family. They understand the shortage of psychiatrists and therapists and the waiting lists to get into affordable treatment programs. Perhaps if they had more money it would be different, but they felt blocked at every turn, including by privacy laws.
“We took a huge bag of pills that she had been taking into the doctor and waited to talk to him, but he would never come out to talk to us,” said Anderson’s sister, who asked not to be identified by name out of concern she would add to the family’s strain. Anderson did not authorize the release of her medical information, so the doctors said they could not talk to them.
Anderson’s family fed her, helped her find places to stay, tried to get her sober, and more than once drove her to the emergency room in the middle of the night, but felt powerless and cut out of her medical care. “We begged for help,” her sister said.
Many doctors, too, are frustrated by the mental health care system. They see patients in the emergency room where they can treat them. But when the crisis passes and patient is alert and seems competent, doctors must defer to their wishes — even if that means rejecting further treatment.
When Anderson’s sister got a letter from Maricopa County, which was trying to find a relative to bury her, she didn’t answer.
“It wasn’t that her family didn’t love her. Everybody was shook over this,” she said. “We’ve all helped, we’ve prayed, we’ve cried. . . . At some point, you have to wash your hands and live your own life.”
On April 8, the day Anderson was buried, Opachinski stood in the room he shared with her, looking at her white plastic sunglasses and pink covid-19 mask with rhinestones. Her CDs by Fleetwood Mac and Abba were stacked in shelves and her father’s tattered leather bomber jacket hung in the closet.
Opachinski opened a folder of papers that offered a glimpse of her life’s highs and lows: a W2 tax form showing she earned $10,363.44 from the Standard Insurance Company in 2010, Heidi’s birth certificate, unpaid medical bills and her 2011 eviction notice.
“People tell me, ‘Get rid of this, get rid of that,’” he said. “Why should I? You can’t just throw a person away. Every time I look at it, I see her.”
As he spoke, Opachinski struggled to maintain his train of thought. Over two hours, he broke down and sobbed several times. When Anderson’s cat wandered in, he couldn’t remember the pet’s name. He apologized and blamed “my learning disability.” He said Anderson was smart and explained things to him: “I didn’t understand stuff, so she would read it to me. She would comfort me.”
Opachinski said Margie talked about her two daughters. “She loved both of them,” he said. But when he offered to help her find their phone numbers, she said no. “I think she was scared. She didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I think her mind wasn’t really right.”
Maricopa County officials, after getting no response from Anderson’s family, talked to Opachinski when they were trying to find someone to bury her, but realized he was unable to make the arrangements.
Holding Margie’s red Mickey Mouse watch, Opachinski said she sometimes spoke of dying and of having her ashes spread in Colorado. He asked where her grave was. Told that White Tanks Cemetery was on the other side of Phoenix, 52 miles away, he exclaimed, “Way the hell out there!”
He was silent for a few minutes.
“I’m trying to figure how to do it. I’d try to take the bus as far as I can, then ride the bicycle, but I’m 71 . . .” His voice trailed off.
For a trip like that he would need Margie.
Milissa spoke to Maricopa County officials after her mother’s death and thought about flying out to claim her body and bury her. But it would have cost thousands of dollars. She was raising two children on her own and though some county aid was available, the bill would be steep. So would the emotional cost.
“To be honest, I'm scared,” she said. “A little part of me, that little girl part of me, wants to believe that she's still alive.”
Milissa hopes to visit her mother’s grave someday and thinks it might give her some peace. She finds it hard not to be angry at doctors, at police, judges, her mother, herself. Maybe everyone could have done more.
Asked about Anderson’s burial arrangements, her sister said, “Was it our responsibility? I don’t know. Maybe . . . but at the end of the day, I lay my head down knowing I did everything I could. I took her food. I took her into my home. I found her an apartment. I have a clear conscience.”
While Maricopa County officials spent weeks combing databases, mailing certified letters and making calls in search for someone to bury Anderson, her body lay in a cooler in the medical examiner’s office and then at a funeral home.
Three months after she died, the Indigent Decedent Services Program paid to have her body cremated. Then on April 8, a county gravedigger opened a trench in the barren cemetery, as he does every Thursday morning for the latest group of people who died and had no one claim their bodies. The brief prayers over, he hopped into the ditch and, one by one, set the 13 identical urns in the ground. Each was stamped with a bar code. Anderson’s read 01444816.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.