Living and dying in America: MoTown on the decline

Unburied bodies tell the tale of Detroit — a city in despair

by Tim Reid in Detroit 
The abandoned corpses, in white body bags with number tags tied toeach toe, lie one above the other on steel racks inside a giant freezerin Detroit’s central mortuary, like discarded shoes in the back of awardrobe.
Some have lain here for years, but in recent months the number ofunclaimed bodies has reached a record high. For in this city that oncesymbolised the American Dream many cannot even afford to bury theirdead.
“I have not seen this many unclaimed bodies in 13 years on the job,”said Albert Samuels, chief investigator at the mortuary. “It startedhappening when the economy went south last year. I have never seen thismany people struggling to give people their last resting place.”
Unburied bodies piling up in the city mortuary — it reached 70earlier this year — is the latest and perhaps most appalling indignityto be heaped on the people of Detroit. The motor city that once boastedthe highest median income and home ownership rate in the US is today inthe midst of a long and agonising death spiral.
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The murder rate is soaring. The school system is in receivership.The city treasury is $300 million (£182m) short of the funds needed toprovide the most basic services such as rubbish collection. In itspostwar heyday, when Detroit helped the US to dominate the world’s carmarket, it had 1.85 million people. Today, just over 900,000 remain. Itwas once America’s fourth-largest city. Today, it ranks eleventh, andwill continue to fall.

Thousands of houses are abandoned, roofs ripped off, windowssmashed. Block after block of shopping districts lie boarded up. Formermanufacturing plants, such as the giant Fisher body plant that madeBuicks and Cadillacs, but which was abandoned in 1991, are rotting.

Even Detroit’s NFL football team, the Lions, are one of the worst inthe country. Last season they lost all 16 games. This year they havelost eight, and won just a single gane.

Michigan’s Central Station, designed by the same people who gave NewYork its Grand Central Station, was abandoned 20 years ago. Onephotographer who produced a series of images for Time magazine said that he often felt, as he moved around parts of Detroit, as though he was in a post-apocalyptic disaster.
Then in June, the $21,000 annual county budget to bury Detroit’sunclaimed bodies ran out. Until then, if a family confirmed that theycould not afford to lay a loved one to rest, Wayne County — in whichDetroit sits — would, for $700, bury the body in a rough pine casket ata nearby cemetery, under a marker.

Darrell Vickers had to identify his aunt at the mortuary inSeptember but he could not afford to bury her as he was unemployed.When his grandmother recently died, Mr Vickers’s father paid for hercremation, but with a credit card at 21 per cent interest. He said atthe time it was “devastating” to not be able to bury his aunt.
What has alarmed medical examiners at the mortuary is that most ofthe dead died of natural causes. It is evidence, they believe, ofpeople who could not afford medical insurance and medicines and whosefamilies can now not afford to bury them.

Yet in recent weeks there have been signs of hope for Mr Samuelsthat he can reduce the backlog of bodies. Local philanthropists havedonated $8,000 to help to bury the dead. In the past month, Mr Samuelshas been able to bury 11 people. The number of unburied is now down to55.


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