Literary lion buried in unmarked grave sparks call for change in Nova Scotia
People who die as 'unclaimed remains' get a government burial, but no money for a headstone
They die alone. Most are poor. Many have been in bad health for some time. Often, they are estranged from their families. Sometimes, they're the last survivor of their lineage. They may live in apartments, tents, or on the streets.
The one thing that binds them together is their final fate: to be declared "unclaimed remains" and left with no one to bury them but the province of Nova Scotia. Since the spring, 42 people have met this fate.
One was an older man in Spryfield who died alone in his home. No one in the area knew much about him. People from the Public Trustee of Nova Scotia searched his home and found few clues — except for a holiday memento.
"One of the things I located was a Christmas card that had been sent to him by a local politician and his wife. I could tell from the card that they were very good friends," says Shannon Ingraham-Christie, the public trustee of Nova Scotia.
She called the politician and his wife. "It turns out he was quite the character in Spryfield and they were able to give me the names of friends of his," she says. "We were able to put together a very nice service for him."
Another elderly man was found dead in the woods near Antigonish. He seems to have been homeless when he died, and left little trace of who he'd been. The public trustee traced his roots to Digby County and buried him with his parents.
Of the 42 people, the province was able to find family, or friends, in 41 cases. In just one case, no one at all was found.
The mystery man on Primrose Street
The big, tall man lived in a brick apartment building on Primrose Street in Dartmouth. It had been his home for decades. He lived without a phone or internet connection, and had been in poor health. In May, during some of the darkest times of Nova Scotia's first COVID lockdown, he died alone. Workers found him later. His apartment was searched for clues to his family and friends, but nothing was found.
The medical examiner formally categorized the man as unclaimed remains and contacted the public trustee. Their search for family and friends was fruitless so they contacted Dartmouth Memorial Gardens, a graveyard near the man's home, and arranged for a government burial. By law, the public purse covers the cost of the plot, and of the burial. But it doesn't cover a headstone.
The man was buried in June. Staff from the graveyard stood respectfully at his grave on a little hill near a forest. His coffin was covered in earth. A small numbered plaque on the ground recorded his grave's location. But his name was not marked on the grave.
The man's name was Charles R. Saunders. In an extraordinary twist of fate, one of the most prominent Black journalists in Nova Scotia, an author whose fiction was celebrated by legions of fans across North America, had died unknown and been buried in an unmarked grave.
As Saunders was laid to rest in that unmarked grave, Taaq Kirksey was moving his wife and two young daughters to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, N.Y., to try to turn Saunders's Imaro fantasy series into a blockbuster television show. He hadn't heard from his friend in a few months, but that was not unusual for the reclusive author.
In September, Kirksey found out his friend was dead. He was almost glad he found out after the move.
"I cannot imagine what the summer months would have been like for me psychologically," Kirksey says. "You try and tell yourself to push through, to toughen up, but no. The last few months have been really tough for me."
He had discovered Imaro as a young man, and the warrior's epic journey through Saunders's mythical Africa changed his life. He vowed to Saunders that he would turn the books into a TV show or a movie to reach a bigger audience. Kirksey thought of Saunders as his Gandalf.
"Not quite a father, not quite an uncle, not quite a friend, not quite a mentor, but literally all of those things," he says.
"An unmarked grave. I felt like he died a double death. I blamed myself. I felt like if I had been smarter, or somehow forced him to be more forthcoming with his life, maybe somehow I could have prevented it."
When his true identity was revealed, Saunders's story astonished everyone who had journeyed with him beyond life, from the medical examiner to the public trustee to the graveyard staff.
Dignity beyond death
About 10,000 Nova Scotians die every year. In the 2,300 cases where they die alone, or by accident, suicide or homicide, their deaths are referred to the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service. Sean Margueratt is the director of the organization. He says each year, they investigate about 1,200 deaths.
They take the bodies to their Dartmouth facility, where one of their four medical examiners will do a post-mortem investigation to try to figure out how they died. At the same time, staff try to track down the next of kin.
"And that's where we get to this idea of unclaimed remains. Some people do not have a next of kin available. Or sometimes there is a next of kin available, but they're not close to the relative or have the financial means to support that individual's burial," he says.
Margueratt says the medical examiners classify about a dozen cases each year as unclaimed remains.
"As soon as there's an indication that this individual may be an unclaimed remains, we're contacting the public trustee right away, getting them involved as early as possible," he says. "It's very rare that we don't identify anyone that knew the individual or can provide some direction."
Ingraham-Christie says her three-person office helps make decisions for people who cannot make their own.
"We protect the interests of the vulnerable people in our society," she says.
They look after the property and finances of adults declared incapable of handling those duties, or who have gone missing, and they handle the finances and property of minor children. When people need to make medical decisions but cannot, and have no one to speak for them, the public trustee speaks for them.
It seemed fitting that they would also speak for the unclaimed dead.
Searching for friends and family
Ingraham-Christie says her office has in fact co-ordinated the quest to claim the unclaimed for a while now, but the April order from the province gave it formal authority. The unclaimed can come to the office from the provincial health authority or the medical examiner.
"We go to the home of the people who passed away. We're looking for information on family, friends — people that we can contact to hopefully ascertain what the wishes of those people would have been, if they were able to express them," she says.
"What would they like to have happen with respect to their body? Do they want a funeral? Do they want to be cremated? Where would they like to be laid to rest?"
She and her colleagues look for letters, cards, photos or other documents. Online, they search social media, property listings and other sources to connect the person to their community.
It's very rare to find absolutely no one, she says
For privacy reasons, she won't name the unclaimed dead for whom her office has worked.
'It's hard news to get'
When they do find someone, they're often bringing grim tidings to distant or estranged family.
"One of the hard parts of this is that when we're doing our investigation, 40 per cent of the time, we're doing notifications of death for people," she says. "It's hard news to get, even if your relationship was strained."
The province gives the trustee up to $4,370 (tax included) to buy a plot, a coffin, and to bury the person with dignity. No unclaimed remains are cremated. Ingraham-Christie says most funeral homes in Nova Scotia willingly take on the work for what the government pays.
"The grave marker gets tricky. Technically under the government funeral, there is not a grave marker provided for. However, some cemeteries don't want to bury cremated remains or a body in their cemetery if there is not some kind of a grave marker at all," she says.
So if there is money left over from the government funeral, they will spend about $500 to buy a simple grave marker that records the person's name, birthdate and date of death. But legally, the government policy is to leave the graves unmarked.
"It's likely we will need more resources in the future," says Ingraham-Christie.
Things could change in 2021. Labi Kousoulis, MLA for Halifax Citadel-Sable Island, is running to be the next leader of the Liberal Party and therefore the premier.
He didn't know the government does not pay for headstones for unclaimed remains until he was contacted by CBC News.
"Should I become premier, yes, I will commit to securing sufficient funds to provide markers for persons buried without family and friends to arrange it," he says.
The other two leadership contenders — Randy Delorey and Iain Rankin — did not answer CBC's questions about the grave markers.
The Department of Health and Wellness has agreed to fund a full-time position for someone at the public trustee to just work on the unclaimed remains file, but due to COVID they have not been able to fill that position. Ingraham-Christie and her colleague Adrian Bowers handle every case.
It can be a mess to sort out who will pay for things. The Department of Community Services should pay for burials for people who die on income support. The Department of Health and Wellness covers the costs in a few very particular circumstances.
The medical examiner hopes that will be simplified.
"For our office, I think being able to have a single touch point in government that our office can call, and that is appropriately resourced to be able to expedite that work, I think is fundamentally what makes the process work well," Margueratt says.
The burden weighs heavily on his staff.
"They're incredibly professional. Their level of compassion and empathy for the families and the decedent and the work we do is very important. Our office feels we're really speaking for the decedent, on behalf of the decedent. Their dignity, their desires for end of life and how they're treated, our office is representing those."
The public trustee and the medical examiners face conflicting goals. They want to give people a dignified burial as soon as possible. Yet they also want to allow enough time to find friends and families.
Generally, the unclaimed dead are buried within a month.
"I think it's very important when you're trying to provide for the respectful disposition of somebody's body or their remains — time is part of that," Ingraham-Christie says.
Righting a wrong
In Los Angeles, Taaq Kirksey was lost in a fog of grief, compounded by the nightmare reality that his dear friend lay in an unmarked grave thousands of kilometres away.
"The first few minutes, I literally had to remind myself of my own name and my age. 'I'm Taaq Kirksey. I've got two kids and a wife and this is where I work and what I do.' Because Imaro had been all I had known and all I had thought about really since 2002."
He worked with a group of Saunders's friends and collaborators in the U.S. and Canada, including several journalists at CBC, to right the wrong.
The group set up a fundraiser and within 24 hours, hundreds of people had donated thousands of dollars. The group ordered a tombstone for Saunders. They also created a stone monument to Imaro that will feature original artwork from Mshindo, a celebrated American artist of Afro-futurism who created iconic covers for the Imaro books. It will stand facing his grave.
"He had such community there to pick up the slack and say, 'No, this has to get rectified,'" Kirksey says. "Charles's life was so rich. He had a literary life that might have been global, but he was also a luminary in Nova Scotia, certainly a Black cultural luminary in Nova Scotia, and that was just as much a part as his literary pedigree."
Almost all of Kirksey's friendship with Saunders played out through letters, emails and phone calls. It was only in 2019 that Kirksey flew all the way to Nova Scotia to finally meet his mentor in person.
"He had tremendous love for Nova Scotia. It was part of him. I don't think I could have dragged him away," he says.
Kirksey is planning a funeral service for Saunders in 2021. One day, he will visit his marked grave.
Still in mourning, still racked by "survivor's guilt," Kirksey finds comfort in the thought that Saunders could continue to change the world from beyond death as the "father of sword and soul."
Kirksey says Imaro and Saunders are twin spirits, overlapping and infusing each other. Imaro is taunted as the son-of-no-father; Saunders hardly knew his own father. Imaro travels through danger to distant lands to find his peace; Saunders left his native Pennsylvania to forge a new life in Canada. Imaro was ignored and forgotten, before overcoming and regaining his rightful place.
Kirksey says Saunders showed that every life is forged in a struggle of mythical proportions, worthy of remembrance. He hopes Saunders will be the last Nova Scotian to be buried as unclaimed remains in an unmarked grave.
"If there was light in his end for others, he would take solace in that."