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Dying alone: Hundreds of bodies are going unclaimed in Ontario and Quebec

WATCH ABOVE: For many, the thought of dying is scary. But what about the thought of dying alone?

On a cold, grey Saturday morning, the body of Michael Geyer lies in a casket in Toronto, waiting to make the journey to its final resting place.

Rows of chairs at the funeral home sit empty, with tissue boxes ready and waiting for family and friends to arrive.

Rev. Larry Whissell and a funeral director are waiting for people to show up so they can begin the funeral.

No one does.

The casket of Michael Geyer, 89, along with the urn containing the ashes of his mother Sophie Geyer, 96. Both were buried together at Beechwood Cemetery in Toronto.
The casket of Michael Geyer, 89, along with the urn containing the ashes of his mother Sophie Geyer, 96. Both were buried together at Beechwood Cemetery in Toronto. (Andrew Russell/Global News)
Rev. Larry Whissell has been a priest in Toronto for roughly 30 years and has presided over many funerals involving unclaimed bodies.
Rev. Larry Whissell has been a priest in Toronto for roughly 30 years and has presided over many funerals involving unclaimed bodies. (Andrew Russell/Global News)
The province gives the municipality money for the funeral and burial – sometimes from the estate of the deceased – and the city finds a local funeral home willing to take care of the body.
The province gives the municipality money for the funeral and burial – sometimes from the estate of the deceased – and the city finds a local funeral home willing to take care of the body. (Andrew Russell/Global News)
In Ontario in 2015, 361 bodies were unclaimed — meaning no one gathered their remains for a funeral. That’s more than double the number nine years earlier, when only 146 people were unclaimed in the province.
In Ontario in 2015, 361 bodies were unclaimed — meaning no one gathered their remains for a funeral. That’s more than double the number nine years earlier, when only 146 people were unclaimed in the province. (Andrew Russell/Global News)
As part of the Catholic tradition, holy water is used to bless the casket of the deceased before it is transported for burial.
As part of the Catholic tradition, holy water is used to bless the casket of the deceased before it is transported for burial. (Andrew Russell/Global News)

 

“In a city of three million people, nobody comes except for us who are paid to be here,” said Whissell, who became a priest nearly 30 years ago.

“Society is like an apartment building. Everybody has got their little cubicle and they just go to work or do their thing and then just lock themselves away.”

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When Michael Geyer died in November, there were no family members to take charge of his body or arrange a funeral. His only friend, Wilhelm Szarca, promised to come and say a final goodbye, but due to a mix-up over the dates, the funeral was postponed a week so its sole guest can attend.

Unclaimed

While Geyer was lucky to have a friend organize a small memorial service, there is a growing number of unclaimed bodies, meaning no one gathered their remains for a funeral. In Ontario in 2015, 361 bodies were unclaimed, more than double the number nine years earlier.

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Quebec shows a similar trend, with the number of unclaimed bodies increasing from 190 in 2007 to 367 in 2015.

According to a 2014 report from Ontario’s coroner, these individuals are mostly men and mostly older than 60. Slightly more than half of them are from Toronto. Aside from that, not much is known about these people or how they ended up with no one to claim them.

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And the coroner doesn’t know why the number is increasing. “It may be due to demographics and/or economics,” suggested Cheryl Mahyr, issues manager with the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service in an email.

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A claimant can be anyone, not just family, she wrote. It could include friends, colleagues, neighbours, churches and community groups. The authorities reach out to all of these people when someone dies, sometimes even getting assistance from the police or the Office of the Public Trustee. They even contact Veterans Affairs and local organizations to see if anyone had contact with the deceased.

READ MORE: Death ain’t cheap, a look at funeral costs and alternative options

Sometimes they do find friends or family members, she said, “but they are not willing or are not in a position to take responsibility for disposition.” Quebec’s ministry of health and social services says that “financial reasons seem to be a factor” in some cases.

And sometimes a person just doesn’t seem to have any ties.

Burying the dead

In between two marked graves lies one of Ontario’s”unclaimed bodies” lies buried at Meadowvale Cemetery in the GTA.
In between two marked graves lies one of Ontario’s”unclaimed bodies” lies buried at Meadowvale Cemetery in the GTA. (Andrew Russell/Global News)

In Ontario, when the regional supervising coroner is satisfied that due diligence has occurred and no one has been found, they sign a “warrant to bury” and the municipality where the person died is then responsible for burying the person.

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The province gives the municipality money for the funeral and burial – sometimes from the estate of the deceased – and the city finds a local funeral home willing to take care of the body. They get around $3,000 in Toronto, said Anna Fiorino of the City of Toronto, with the city footing about six per cent of the bill.

Rick Cowan, Mount Pleasant’s assistant vice-president of marketing and communications, is pictured at Meadowvale Cemetery in the Greater Toronto Area.
Rick Cowan, Mount Pleasant’s assistant vice-president of marketing and communications, is pictured at Meadowvale Cemetery in the Greater Toronto Area. (Andrew Russell/Global News)

With an average Toronto funeral costing close to $10,000, this means most of these people are buried on the outskirts of the city, said Jim Cardinal, president of Cardinal Funeral Homes in Toronto.

“The first thing that we do is try to find an inexpensive grave because that takes up the vast majority of what the public trustee gives us. And then basically whatever’s left goes towards their service,” he said.

“We provide a dignified funeral for these people,” said Cardinal. They have visitation hours and get appropriate clergy to deliver a short service. “Sometimes a handful of people show up. Ninety per cent of the time, no one shows up so typically a couple of our staff will go in so at least there is someone there. And then we purchase a grave for these people and they’re buried. We give them a proper sendoff.”

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READ MORE: Unclaimed cremated remains pile up in North American funeral homes

But an empty room is sad, he said.

“It’s sad that you spend a whole life on this planet and no one comes to your funeral.”

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And not everyone in this situation gets even a small service. In Ottawa, for example, unclaimed bodies are often taken directly to their graves, according to Scott Miller, of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry Funeral Homes.

They’re buried in single graves, often on the outskirts of cities. There is no name on the grave — usually just a number, corresponding to their file in the cemetery’s record system.

In Ontario, they’re buried instead of cremated just in case a family member comes along later and wishes to move the body elsewhere — something that is “very rare” according to Rick Cowan of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Group, though he has seen it happen.

Michael’s funeral

Wilhelm Szarca visits his friend Michael Geyer at a Toronto hospital.
Wilhelm Szarca visits his friend Michael Geyer at a Toronto hospital. (Supplied)

A second attempt to commemorate Michael Geyer was held a week after the first. This time, about 25 people attended the 89-year-old’s funeral.

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But there wasn’t a family member or relative to be found. Instead there was a collection of acquaintances: his lawyer, his real estate agent, his barber.

READ MORE: Remains discovered in Quebec funeral home after director lost permit to practice

The rest were there to support Wilhelm Szarca, Geyer’s friend, who helped put together the small service for the former mechanic and garage owner.

“Although we were not blood related, we became best friends in a relatively short period of time. We mutually regarded each other as family,” said Szarca, 65, his voice trembling as he addressed the room. “Beneath appearances I saw a kind, soft, patient and lonely soul.”

“Please forgive me for [not] taking you to your home country to help you rest in peace with your loved ones.”

According to Szarca, Geyer immigrated to Canada from Austria shortly after the Second World War and lived with his mother Sophie until her death at the age of 96. Her ashes were found in Geyer’s home, and she was eventually buried with her son.

“He was sort of a loner, you know,” said Helmut Mechinlinski, Geyer’s real estate agent, at the funeral. “Living by himself and he was very attached to his mother. There wouldn’t be a day where he wouldn’t talk about his mother.”

Michael Geyer, seen in this undated picture, passed away in November 2016 at the age of 89
Michael Geyer, seen in this undated picture, passed away in November 2016 at the age of 89 (Supplied)

Although he led a mostly solitary life, Geyer did have an unexpected windfall. A mechanic who ran his own garage in Toronto’s west end, Geyer sold the property to Metrolinks in 2016 for a reported $1 million.

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Geyer was unmarried and had no remaining relatives. No one claimed him when he died, but he didn’t die alone.

“For the last two months I slept at the hospital 24/7,” said Szarca, looking back on his friend’s final days. “He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t do nothing. I had to feed him with a spoon.”

Whissell, who led the funeral service, said that Geyer was lucky to have a friend like Szarca. He’s delivered many services to an empty room, but he believes it’s important to have a good service no matter how many people show up.

Szarca hopes to meet his friend again someday.

“I believe in eternity and that we are going to meet again, and that I’m responsible for him to reach wherever he is going.”

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After the funeral, the group went out to lunch at Swiss Chalet — Geyer’s favourite.

Michael Geyer was buried on a Monday afternoon at Beechwood Cemetery in Toronto. His friend Szarca was there.

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