Death is one of life’s few certainties. After all, everyone eventually faces it.
Gloomy as that may be, there is a great deal of work that begins when someone meets their end.
There are remains to be handled, next of kin to be contacted, services to be arranged, an obituary to write and, in most cases, a burial or ceremony to hold.
But there are times when a human being dies and the process halts before it can even begin — when they are found without a name.
The dead cannot speak for themselves, but investigators — either law enforcement or medical examiners — can sift through records for answers.
Fingerprints, DNA, dental records and other scientific methods are the standards for filling in the blanks — but are not always possible.
On Thursday, a deceased man or woman was found inside the former site of No Frills on West Broadway in Council Bluffs. The remains had been there for some time, according to authorities, so the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s Office was called in to perform an autopsy.
Council Bluffs Police Sgt. Ted Roberts said there are several factors investigators take into consideration when they try to uncover a subject’s identity.
“Can we specify how long they have been there? Can we get a DNA sample? We’ll look at missing persons reports from around the time we believe they passed,” Roberts said.
The fact is, some are found without a driver’s license in their back pocket. Time can lessen the chance to collect a blood sample or lift fingerprints from the subject.
Even if they can gather a sample or print, both are near useless without something on record to compare them to.
“They could be missing from across the country or not have a DNA profile in the records system,” Roberts said.
If lucky, investigators may get in touch with friends or relatives of the subject. An old piece of clothing they possess that may have been worn by the subject could still have strands of hair. Relatives could provide their own blood samples to see if the DNA matches theirs, as well.
Walker Hodges, chief investigator at the Iowa medical examiner officer, said there are ways beyond blood and dental records, should those options be exhausted.
“Sometimes it’s a circumstantial mark, like a tattoo. Medical implants, like bone plates can also lead to a positive identification,” he said. “We really strive to find an answer.”
Iowa has a good record of identifying subjects, with help from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
NamUs, launched in 2007, is a collection of pooled databases on missing or unidentified persons in the hopes to ease the work involved in identifying subjects, according to the organization’s website.
An estimated 600,000 people go missing each year, while 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year, according to the organization.
Administered by the National Institute of Justice, it can aid investigators through record searches after a DNA sample or print is found for comparison purposes.
The No Frills subject has been scheduled for autopsy. While it may be weeks — or longer, according to Roberts — for the results to come in, there is a chance the individual’s history is online somewhere.
“It’s not always a clear answer from the start, but it’s something we work hard for,” Roberts said.