"When you go looking for the family of a dead man found in a motel room in the California desert, you don’t expect to be having discussions about higher mathematics. Yet I find myself reading about that subject on this cold January afternoon in quest of one man’s next of kin. Two weeks earlier, I sat in this same spot, my feet propped on a corner of the desk as I nursed a lukewarm cappuccino and typed the name “Hartwig Arenstorf” into the Google search bar. I had read a brief case profile on him on NamUs, a database of deceased individuals whose next of kin is unknown, and decided I would try to find his family.
Why would a middle-aged mother of nine spend hours poring over the online traces of a deceased person’s life? Or, as a friend once said, “I wouldn’t lose one minute’s sleep over someone whose body is unclaimed. Why do you care?” There’s the but-for-the-grace-of-God-there-go-I, for starters. There’s the fact that I spent twenty years as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for foster children and became adept at locating absent parents and relatives so that children might not have to live in stranger foster care. And there’s the story of my brother, Jim, who laid unidentified for five days in a Texas morgue. He’d be listed on NamUs, with his tattoos itemized to help identify him (a rabbit head with a bow tie on the inner side of his right arm and peacock on his left forearm) but for a former roommate who found a receipt from the Salvation Army emergency shelter where Jim had once stayed. I can’t save the dead or solve the world’s problems but I can connect the dots, and bring families some solace.
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