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Donations Help Detroit Bury Unclaimed Bodies


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. As we've reported on Detroit's financial woes, we've told you about services the city has struggled to maintain. Scarce funding has even forced Detroit to delay burying unclaimed bodies for a year or more. Many of them are homeless people. Earlier this summer, Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET in Detroit told us about the death of one homeless man Quinn had met years ago, a man who was a fixture in the city for quite a long time and then became a symbol of Detroit's inability to lay its dead to rest.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: The last half-dozen years of T.C. Latham's life were spent panhandling in downtown Detroit and keeping mostly to himself.

T.C. LATHAM: I'm pretty much of a loner around here. You know, the people that I associate with down here are guys that are working down here or maybe one or two homeless people that are like me, you know, got something on the ball.

KLINEFELTER: Last September, Latham was found dead in a cheap hotel room. He became one of a hundred bodies likely to be left in the Wayne County morgue for a year or more. But when that news broke, some who had brushed off Latham in life banded together to give his death meaning.

ANDY OLESKO: While all of us kind of admitted to yelling at him or, you know, taking out some frustrations on him, it just didn't seem right for him to be sitting in a morgue without any closure.

KLINEFELTER: Andy Olesko often ran into Latham downtown. He connected with others online who pledged money to help give Latham the funeral the county was too broke to pay for anytime soon.

OLESKO: When the checks started coming in, it was a pretty cool moment. In fact, there was a transplanted Detroiter, somebody who lives in North Carolina, he knew him too. He decided to send a check up.

KLINEFELTER: Latham's story spread through NPR listeners, newspaper columns and radio talk shows. From Los Angeles to Miami to Green Bay, people began offering to help underwrite Latham's burial and the other unclaimed bodies in Wayne County's morgue. In Boston, Sister Bridget Haase began using Latham as a talking point in her weekly meetings with wheelchair-bound people suffering from multiple sclerosis.

SISTER BRIDGET HAASE: These people who are all paralyzed, all on limited incomes, said to me, Sister what can we do to help? Could we have a bake sale? What can we do to help bury just one person?

KLINEFELTER: Latham's story - and the donations it inspired - also created a change in the Wayne County government itself.

ALBERT SAMUELS: We've set up a separate fund this money will be deposited into to bury these people.

KLINEFELTER: Albert Samuels, the chief investigator for the Wayne County Medical Examiner's office, says he's been looking for a long time to find more money to bury the bodies no one else wants in Detroit.

SAMUELS: The difference between an animal and a human is we bury our dead. These people, regardless of what kind of life they lived, they deserve a final resting place. I would hope for no less if it were some loved one of mine and I couldn't afford to do it.

KLINEFELTER: And now one of those who may finally be laid to rest is T.C. Latham.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (singing) ...every morning you greet me...

KLINEFELTER: At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, Kathie Stevens volunteered to collect and organize the donations for Latham's burial.

KATHIE STEVENS: I sat in these pews with T.C. And so I just thought he's all alone.

KLINEFELTER: A benefactor got an attorney to take legal authority over Latham's remains. They're in a funeral home now. And a burial date is being set. Beyond that, Stevens says there's talk of creating a non-profit to handle future donations for burying all of the un-named and unclaimed bodies lying in a Wayne County morgue freezer.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: T.C. is just one of all those bodies. So maybe we help get other people respectfully buried. I mean stacking people up in the freezer like all that Costco stuff I have at home? It's heartbreaking.

KLINEFELTER: And if that situation does change, it will be primarily because of T.C. Latham's story. The man who described his life as a homeless hell has become a rallying point for helping others achieve dignity in death. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chuck Quirmbach is a Milwaukee-based reporter who covers developments and issues in Southeastern Wisconsin that are of statewide interest. He has numerous years of experience covering state government, elections, the environment, energy, racial diversity issues, clergy abuse claims and major baseball stadium doings. He enjoys covering all topics.
Quinn Klinefelter
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