The remains of 48 unidentified people -- some dating to the early 1970s -- are stored on gurneys in a refrigerated room at the Suffolk County medical examiner's office.
The remains -- discovered along beaches, wooded paths and in an abandoned barn in Riverhead -- have not been buried because the county has been trying to identify them, Suffolk Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan said.
The leads in most cases have been exhausted, and the office is running out of space to store the remains, said Caplan, who reviewed the unidentified cases when he took office in July 2014.
"Identified or unidentified, they are still human beings, and still deserve a proper burial," Caplan said in an interview. "But also, we do have a finite amount of space."
The county wants to bury the 12 full skeletons and 36 partial human remains. The earliest full skeleton, a man, dates to 1992. The oldest partial remains were found in 1973.
Two other unidentified full skeletons will remain at the morgue in Hauppauge because they are part of open police investigations. They include the body of a 1- to 4-year-old girl found at Gilgo Beach on April 4, 2011. Police discovered the decomposed remains of eight women, a man and the toddler between December 2010 and April 2011 near that stretch of beach in a string of unsolved killings.
Unidentified bodies are an issue facing medical examiners across the country, said David Fowler, vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.
It is unusual for counties to store remains that date back decades. Matching a body with a name before burial is the ideal outcome, Fowler said. Most places lack the storage space to keep remains if identification takes a prolonged period.
"The fact that they're trying to hold on to them shows extreme diligence" in attempting to identify them, Fowler said.
"At a certain point you have to say you're not going to get an ID on these people. You have to make a decision."
In cases in which bodies have been identified, but are either unclaimed or the estate is too poor to bury them, Suffolk County pays funeral homes as much as $1,200 to handle burial, said Franklyn Farris, the county's court-appointed public administrator. Suffolk paid for the burial of 74 such bodies in various Long Island cemeteries last year.
Few in Nassau
Nassau County officials say they have few unidentified or unclaimed bodies. Even unidentified homicide victims are usually buried within months and almost always in less than a year after attempts to track down their names, family and assets are exhausted, officials said.
"It is very rare that we have unclaimed bodies, one or two in several years, and these are with no established identity," said Dr. Tamara Bloom, Nassau's chief medical examiner. "More often we have bodies in the morgue for a few weeks when families have no money."
New York City buries its unidentified bodies at its potter's field on Hart Island "after we have exhausted all avenues," said Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the city medical examiner's office.
In Maryland, where Fowler is chief state medical examiner, unidentified bodies are kept for a year before they're cremated. Urns are buried at a state hospital in a ceremony every six months.
The medical examiner's office in Suffolk does not want to cremate the unidentified bodies in case they need to be disinterred in future investigations. Records that could be used to identify the remains, including fingerprints, dental records, X-rays and DNA, will remain on file after burials, Caplan said.
A federal website, namus.gov, catalogs unidentified bodies nationwide in a public database that medical examiners and the public use to make matches with missing persons. Descriptions include when and where they were found, what they were wearing and in some cases composite drawings of their faces.
Notes in the clothing of a man found in 2011 in an abandoned barn in Riverhead had instructions in Chinese for how to use the New York City subway, according to the website. The dental work of a man who ran in front of a Long Island Rail Road train in 2007 is pictured. The young girl found in 2011 at Gilgo Beach was wearing gold hoop earrings and a 16-inch gold chain.
In search of a grave site
The Suffolk medical examiner and members of the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Assocation are searching for a place to bury the unidentified bodies.
In June, a Suffolk legislative committee rejected a bill sponsored by Legis. Sarah S. Anker (D-Mount Sinai) to reopen the county's Almhouse Cemetery for a day to bury the bodies. Yaphank Historical Society president Robert Kessler and Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley) objected, saying they wanted to preserve the historical character of the cemetery, which operated as the county's potter's field from the late 1800s to 1953.
Louis Bruno, past president of the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association, said he hoped to bury all the bodies in one cemetery.
Suffolk County Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said he's considering a county-owned cemetery in Manorville. "How can we get the people the resting place they deserve? We shouldn't be storing them indefinitely," he said. With Ellen Yan