OF THE 6,000 deaths reported to the King County Medical Examiner's office each year, roughly half occur in hospitals. With their name on a plastic bracelet and their disease tracked on a chart, those who die in hospitals can be moved swiftly through the system from death to burial. Of the 3,000 or so who die outside the hospital--blundering into speeding cars, jogging into heart attacks, heedlessly using the blow dryer in the bathtub--most are no mystery: There is someone to identify them, bury them, and forget them. But some 1,500 people a year are troubling exceptions: Either no one knows who they are, or no one knows how they died. These deaths are investigated by the office of the King County Medical Examiner. I recently spent an afternoon at Harborview talking to investigator Bill McClure about King County's unknown dead.

How can you tell who a dead person is? Or was?

There's visual identification; most people have some photo ID on them. Then we use fingerprints. Next we move on to scars, marks, and tattoos. But tattoos are so common now, they aren't much help. It used to be that you could tell a lot about a person from their tattoos... military service, prison record. But everybody gets the same tattoos now, and in the same places.

Who do you investigate?

You've heard of Missing Persons? We're "Found Persons." We get a half-dozen phone calls a day, people looking for someone they hope we've found. We almost never have the person they're looking for. The irony is, most of the people who turn up here have nobody looking for them. They're transient, or they're hiding from their families. Or they've changed their identities--we get a few of those every year. And then there are elderly people. People whose whole generation has died out: parents gone; siblings, spouses; their children either dead or moved away.

We identify, on average, everybody.


Maybe one person a year goes unidentified.

How do you identify somebody who drops dead when they're not carrying any ID?

Joggers sometimes have one key with them, a car key. Then it's just a matter of waiting for the park to clear out, and trying the key in the cars that are left.

There was a guy who had the following things on him: a set of house keys, some tools, and a lapel pin from the Manhattan Project. The Swiss army knife he had--only 12 had been sold in Seattle, and I tracked each one down. Nothing. He was too young to have worked on the Manhattan Project, but I was at the point of calling Los Alamos when somebody finally missed him and turned in a missing-persons report.

When you investigate a dead person's house or apartment, what do you look for?

I look at their books and papers. I look for themes. One guy had a whole collection of religious books; he was supposed to enter the clergy. He had one book that didn't fit: Conrad's Heart of Darkness, inscribed by a friend who turned out to know the real story on him.

Some people, though, have nothing in the whole house to read, and not a thing to write on. You find that they bought a pen and a piece of paper explicitly for the purpose of writing a suicide note. We live in a post-literate society.

I look at photos, too. I once tracked down a family on the basis of a child's sports jersey in a photograph in an old Christmas card.

Do some people die wanting to be forgotten?

Absolutely. Three or four years ago, a woman checked into a downtown hotel room and took cyanide. She left a note that said: "I don't have a family. Don't look for them. No one is looking for me." No one ever leaves a note like that. I'm certain someone is looking for her. She checked in under a false name; took everything identifiable out of her luggage. We've traced her clothing back to the mail-order company it came from; we've followed every lead. I'm still hoping someone will come forward for her.

What kind of changes are you seeing as Seattle grows?

People move so much now, and family ties are looser. People move to a big city like Seattle; they lose contact with people at home. And more and more people are going unclaimed all the time, either because they're unidentified, or families just don't have the money to pay for things.

For us, though, when somebody's buried, they're not gone. The people we can't identify--we bury them rather than cremate them, because someday someone might identify them.

Any plans for your own memorial?

After working here for about a year, I got myself a will, funeral arrangements, and life insurance. I plan to live to a ripe old age. But sometimes people don't.