WEST PADUCAH — About a dozen people gathered in West Paducah for a graveside service on Wednesday to pay their respects to a man they had never met, and whose name they do not know.
“I think being unidentified and not having any family and friends here today is one of the saddest things I can think of,” the Rev. Tim Turner said to the public servants who gathered in the stead of loved ones. “So for a short time, I want us to become a friend and I want us to give a little bit of dignity to his death today.”
Eight months have passed since law enforcement officers pulled the man’s body from the Ohio River in Kentucky, near the Illinois line at Brookport. Since then, McCracken County Coroner Amanda Melton said she’s fielded numerous calls to her office from people inquiring about whether the man matches the identity of their missing loved ones.
But thus far, they’ve been unable to figure out who he was, or where he called home. She wanted to see that he had a proper burial while they wait for someone to step forward and claim him.
“Part of the problem is he has to be reported as missing as well,” Melton said. “So you have to be able to link up the missing and the unidentified. And unfortunately, a lot of times when people are estranged from their family, they’re not ever reported as missing. They don’t know they’re missing. So that makes it hard.”
The man eulogized by strangers Wednesday is among a small number of other similar open cases in the region involving unidentified bodies retrieved from rivers. In late April, Alexander County officials received a call from barge operators who discovered a body caught between their barges on the Ohio River near Cairo, about 45 miles downstream from Brookport.
The month prior, officials pulled a body from the Mississippi River near Chester, whose identity also is still unknown.
Law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s office, West McCracken Fire & Rescue and Paducah Police Department served as pallbearers for the unidentified man at Wednesday’s service at Wilmington Cemetery. Without any specifics to go on about the man’s life, Tuner highlighted the shared experiences of humanity.
“We never met him, never looked into his eyes, never shook his hand, never smiled, laughed or cried with him,” he said. “We never knew him. But yet we kind of do know him. Because he was probably a lot like some of us.
“We know that he once laughed, he dreamed, he hoped, he felt love. We know that he felt pain, sorrow, probably was hurt several times in his life, and may have hurt other people. He was just like one of us. …
“We hope that in this life he found love, had love, and somebody reciprocated that love to him.”
McCracken County Sheriff Matt Carter said he vividly remembers the day — Sept. 18 — his office received a call from a motorist on the Brookport Bridge, traveling between Illinois and Kentucky, reporting what the caller thought looked like a body.
He was among the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene that afternoon. From the top of the bridge, they looked down through holes in the structure to the river below and spotted the man washed up on a log and bed of debris, he recalled.
Rescue crews retrieved the body. But without the ability to identify him, the death investigation reached a standstill, Carter said. “You’ve got nine questions to every one answer,” he said.
On Wednesday, Carter stood solemnly beside his colleagues, many of them in uniform, tilting his wide-brimmed hat in respect as the reverend prayed for answers.
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Sometimes they come unexpectedly, many years later, said Melton, the coroner.
In the early 2000s, McCracken County officials recovered a body from the river, and held a funeral service much like Wednesday’s, she said. It was another five years before family members were able to make a positive identification.
“It’s definitely not hopeless,” she added.
Identifying details about the unidentified man and the case (UP53834) have been filed at “NamUS”, the U.S. Department of Justice’s database of missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases.
His case is one of 61 unidentified persons cases included in the database for Kentucky — the state where his body was found, though not necessarily the state where he was from. There are 171 unidentified persons cases listed for Illinois.
He was about 60 years of age, 6 feet, 2 inches tall, 132 pounds, with a cleanly shaven head and no facial hair. He had no identifying marks, scars or tattoos on his body. His race/ethnicity is listed as uncertain.
Cause of death has been classified as undetermined by Dr. Jeffrey Springer from the Kentucky Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Carter, the sheriff, recalls so clearly the day he found the man's body for two reasons. One, because of the experience itself. And two, his own father died that same evening.
With all the support from family, friends and the community that he received in the days that followed his personal loss, it hit him hard Wednesday that only strangers were able to attend the send off for the unknown man. He said that paying his respects was the least he could do.
“I think this kind of defines and puts empathy in motion. We’re all human beings and we all experience a lot of the same things in life,” he said. “We all have ups and downs. And there’s going to come a point in time for each and every one of us to be where this gentleman is today."
At the closing of the burial service, Rachel Dodson, a friend of the coroner’s, sang a verse of Amazing Grace. “I once was lost, but now I’m found” — the words seemed fitting for the service that struck a hopeful tone that maybe someone would soon reach out who knows this man.
As she concluded, Rev. Turner said he believed that it was appropriate given the situation to “be specific in asking God if he will allow this man, at some point in time, to be identified. Because it’s going to be a very hard process for his family not having this closure, not knowing where he’s at, not knowing what’s going on with him.”
Though the people in attendance did not know his name, “He was somebody to somebody,” Turner said, adding that God also “knew and knows exactly who he is.”
“The man is not unidentified,” he said, “he just is to us.”