Increasing Number of Lonely Deaths

A mortuary service in Koreatown has created a joint-graveyard for unaffiliated deaths. Many of the corpses are those of first generation immigrants.

#. A Korean-American man, only identified by his initial A, died of a heart attack recently. The response to the 60-year-old’s death was unfathomable. A has said that his family resides on the East Coast, but no one around him knew how to contact them. Later on, even the LAPD and FBI were involved to find A’s family, but to no avail. It was only when South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs got involved when the whereabouts of his family members were identified.
Curiously, though, A’s family thanked the investigators for contacting them, only to refuse to exercise any more responsibility for the cost of his death.

#. An elderly Korean woman, only identified by her last name Kim, visited the Daehan Mortuary Services recently with four of her friends. She immigrated to the United States 30 years ago after her daughter, who married an American veteran, invited her to the country. Over the last couple of decades, Kim had a falling out with her daughter, who lived in Texas, and chose to move out to Koreatown Los Angeles. Her husband has already passed away and the only people around her to look after her are a few friends. At the mortuary services center, Kim asked the employees that she will pre-pay for her funeral and asked them to look after her when she is eventually found dead.

Lonely deaths of first generation Korean immigrants in the U.S. have been on the rise in recent years. There has even been a case in which a corpse of an elderly citizen whose families and friends could not be identified was left at the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner for more than two years.

In fact, such deaths occur regardless of age. While the life as an immigrant become a lonely battle over the years, more than a few of them spend the remainder of their lives without being in touch with their family members. Even those in their 20s have suffered a similar fate after dying of heart attack and car accidents.

“About 5 percent of the calls we receive are inquiries about funerals for people who died by themselves,” said an employee at a Koreatown mortuary services center. “Generally, their friends volunteer to be responsible for their funerals, but it’s often difficult to sort out arrangement for those types of deaths due to legal reasons.”

The most disheartening part is that more and more people are dying lonely. The most convenient way to respond to their deaths is to find their families, but that is obviously not as easy as it sounds. If and when even their families refused to take care of the deaths, it is when the incident is categorized as unaffiliated deaths. In those cases, legal issues may arise even if friends want to volunteer to hold the funeral.

Mortuary services in Koreatown explained that the bodies of the unaffiliated deaths are first stored at the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office. The county department then attempts to identify the dead person’s families with information such as social security number. Spouses are the first point of its contacts, followed by immediate family members. Once identified and the family agrees to take care of the corpse, a processing fee of $400 is charged for further progression.

However, for many unaffiliated deaths of first generation immigrants, their families commonly refuse to take charge of taking the corpse. “There have been three cases recently in which we found families of those who passed away,” said an employee at L.A.’s South Korean consulate office. “Two of the families refused to take responsibility. They usually just thank us for contacting them, but rarely take further action.”

At times, friends and religious groups step up to help out. It roughly costs around $1,000 to cover for funeral and other miscellaneous post-death costs.

By Hyoung Jae Kim