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Detroit finds dignity in death

A record number of unclaimed bodies are piling up in the Detroit morgue. But thanks to a stranger, some are being laid to rest.

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By Poppy Harlow, CNNMoney.com anchor

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At the funeral for six of Detroit's unclaimed dead.
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Bodies piling up in the Detroit morgue.
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Each of the deceased were given a simple pine casket.

DETROIT (CNNMoney.com) -- Six people. Buried. In Detroit.

Just six weeks ago, a record number of bodies lay unclaimed in the freezer of the Wayne County morgue. Some had been there for years.

But now, the tally has fallen from 67 to 52 thanks to Shanti Das. The former New York-based music executive with Universal Motown Records raised the money to pay for six of those people to be interred.

"They were stacked up like shoes in a closet," Das recalled thinking after CNNMoney reported what was happening at 1300 E. Warren St. in October. "It was such a horrific situation. I thought, 'Oh my god, we have to try and restore some dignity to these families.'"

Even though Das isn't from Detroit, the corpses triggered a very personal reaction: Her father had committed suicide when she was just eight months old, and Das' mother had struggled to find the money to bury him.

"There were just a lot of things that hit home for me, and I just wanted to immediately take action," she said.

Das started the nonprofit organization May We Rest in Peace with a single goal: Bury all the unclaimed bodies in Detroit. She raised $6,000 in just a few weeks, calling on her personal connections with recording artists such as Busta Rhymes and Akon.

And on a crisp, clear November afternoon, with the sun shining down on a burial plot at Knollwood Cemetery, on the outskirts of Detroit, six people were laid to rest.

Charles Hopkins.

Karen McDermott.

Paul McGrath.

Valinda Miles.

Michael Wilcox.

Frank Woodward.

"Without these additional funds...they'd be in our cooler system," said the morgue's chief investigator, Al Samuels.

Instead, these six people are no longer numbers on body bags. Each person was given a simple pine casket. Each case number replaced by a name. For the families, there is now dignity in death.

The economic downturn has hit Detroit so hard that many families have been unable to find the money to bury their loved ones. So they've abandoned the bodies in the morgue, hoping that the county will find the funds to offer a final resting place. But the county was out of money, so the bodies piled up.

When we called Detroit native Michael McGrath to tell him that his father, Paul, would be buried with funds from Das' foundation, he was shocked. Once next of kin sign off on leaving the deceased, that is generally their last contact with the morgue.

"With today's economic state you just don't know when your next paycheck is going to look like," McGrath said. "My father had requested he be buried, so this is really something that is going to help me sleep at night. It's going to be something that we can always look back and think that somebody was there to help us when we needed it or help my father when he needed it."

Shortly after the burial a handful of people gathered at Perry Funeral Home in downtown Detroit to pay their respects to the six people they never knew. Paul Betts was one the attendees. The local construction worker began organizing such monthly services for the unclaimed 16 months ago. To him, it's a matter of pride.

"We're a city known for abandoned houses. We're certainly not going to let them know us as abandoning our people", Betts said.

"No one's alone," added Betsy Deak, the funeral home's operations manager. "We feel like islands but not one of us is. A loss of someone who died three years ago is everybody's loss."

And while 52 bodies remain unclaimed in Wayne County's morgue freezer, their situation is less dire than before. The county's fiscal 2010 budget has been approved, and it allots $22,000 for unclaimed burials. Plus, there is state aid available to help families.

"I think the worst is over," said investigator Samuels.

Nevertheless, Das' goal remains unchanged. She intends to raise enough to bury all the abandoned. "It's going to take one person like me and a million others to start shedding lights on these problems," she said. "But just because I'm a country girl from Atlanta doesn't mean I can't help someone in Detroit." To top of page

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