DETROIT, Feb. 5, 2010 -- For months, dozens of unclaimed bodies piled up in coolers inside the Wayne County morgue in Detroit and in a trailer parked outside.
News reports on the problem last fall became a chilling reminder of the economic hardship plaguing the city. With unemployment in Detroit close to 30 percent, many families of the dead cannot afford to pay for their loved ones to be buried or cremated.
Amid that economic backdrop, the number of piled-up, unclaimed bodies rose to 67 by October.
Former Motown Records executive Shanti Das was in her office in New York one night when she saw an article on the Internet about the unclaimed bodies.
"It really just struck a nerve with me," said Das. "My heart just went out to those families, thinking it was such a tragedy that they couldn't afford to bury their loved ones."
That night, Das decided that even though she had no experience doing non-profit work she had to help -- immediately.
The next morning, she sent out a letter to her colleagues in the music industry asking for money to help the families in Detroit bury their loved ones.
"Typically when I think of Detroit, I think 'Motown,' the city that captured our hearts with some of today's most respected artists/music of our time!" she wrote. "I am sure most of you are aware of the financial crisis that the city of Detroit is currently experiencing. I come to you today not to talk about music, but a basic human issue that is all too sad!"
With that, Das set up May WE Rest in Peace, an organization dedicated to raising money to bury the unclaimed bodies. Celebrities Kid Rock, Akon and Busta Rhymes each made contributions right away. There was a public call to action announced on the BET program "106 and Park."
The group's money helped relieve a dire funding shortfall. The $21,000 in Wayne County funds set aside to bury unclaimed bodies dried up last June. And even though space had run out at the morgue, the county said it could not afford to appropriate more money towards burying the corpses because of a $105 million budget deficit.
Das: 'It Just Kind of Hit Home for Me'
Helping the Detroit families in need was very personal for Das. Growing up in Atlanta, Das' father passed away when she was 6 months old and her mom was worried about coming up with enough money to bury him. Her mother, years later, told her just how stressful the situation was.
"It just kind of hit home for me," Das said. "It was such a personal reaction that I just wanted to help those people.
"It's hard enough when people are living and they can't afford to take care of themselves," she said. "These people have no one working on their behalf. They are deceased. I thought it was such a shame. I just wanted to restore some dignity to these families."
She has, in fact, been able to help a number of families bury their loved ones with dignity. In just three months, Das' organization has raised more than $20,000 -- enough to bury 26 people. She said there's more work to do and she looks forward soon to sending in another $5,000 check.
Local officials in Detroit say the work by Das' organization and others has made a difference.
"I think there was a shock that this situation even existed, and that's why I think you saw the outpouring -- the feedback from across the county," said Dennis Niemiec, a spokesman for Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.
The county said $30,000 had been raised from people concerned about the problem. That money, along with money from the county's budget for the 2010 fiscal year, is enough to remove the unclaimed bodies that remain.
"We've found an honorable way to give these people a proper burial," said Albert Samuels, chief investigator of the morgue.
Samuels expects the morgue will release enough bodies over the next couple of days that it can stop storing corpses in the freezer truck outside the morgue that still holds 29 bodies.
"Hopefully, the trailer will become a thing of the past in a few weeks," he said.
To further reduce the cost of burials, the county has worked out a deal with a local cemetery to cremate the bodies at a reduced cost, is pursuing additional funds from the state and hopes to give Wayne State University some bodies as anatomical gifts, Samuels said.
Finding space for the approximately 10 to 12 bodies that come through the facility every day has been a problem for many years. Although some the dead bodies are decomposed so badly that dental and fingerprint identification is useless, Samuels keeps a record of information on the bodies just in case the families can later identify a tattoo or some other body markings.
'Humans Bury Their Dead'
But even among the bodies that can be identified, many of the families will not -- or perhaps cannot, because of financial hardship -- claim them.
That is something Samuels can't fathom.
"Coming from a large family, I cannot in my mind figure out your not picking up a sibling or somebody," he said. "One of the things that separates humans from animals is humans bury their dead. I can't see leaving a loved one in this condition. Give them their final resting place."
Samuels also thinks the local and national news coverage of the situation at the morgue has a big help.
"It was positive," he said. "A lot of people didn't know these types of things were happening. Unfortunately, Detroit is not unique in this. We're finding out this is happening all over the country."
Das wants to continue raising funds for Detroit until every unclaimed body is out of the morgue and buried or cremated. But she knows her work can't stop there because of the reports that the problem extends beyond Detroit.
Das soon plans to raise money for families in other cities struggling to pay for the burial of their dead.