Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans, “The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels” (Crown, 2024)

For centuries, people who died destitute or alone were buried in potters’ fields—a Dickensian end that even the most hard-pressed families tried to avoid. Today, more and more relatives are abandoning their dead, leaving it to local governments to dispose of the bodies. Up to 150,000 Americans now go unclaimed each year. Who are they? Why are they being forgotten? And what is the meaning of life if your death doesn’t matter to others.

The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels (Crown, 2024) is an extraordinary work of narrative nonfiction that took Pamela J. Prickett and Stefan Timmermans eight years in the making to uncover this hidden social world. They follow four individuals in Los Angeles, tracing the twisting, poignant paths that put each at risk of going unclaimed, and introducing us to the scene investigators, notification officers, and crematorium workers who care for them when no one else will.

The Unclaimed lays bare the difficult truth that anyone can be abandoned. It forces us to confront a variety of social ills, from the fracturing of families and the loneliness of cities to the toll of rising inequality. But it is also filled with unexpected moments of tenderness. In Boyle Heights, a Mexican American neighborhood not far from the glitter of Hollywood, hundreds of strangers come together each year to mourn the deaths of people they never knew. These ceremonies, springing up across the country, reaffirm our shared humanity and help mend our frayed social fabric.

Beautifully crafted and profoundly empathetic, The Unclaimed urges us to expand our circle of caring—in death and in life.

Michael O. Johnston, Ph.D. is a Assistant Professor of Sociology at William Penn University. He is the author of The Social Construction of a Cultural Spectacle: Floatzilla (Lexington Books, 2023) and Community Media Representations of Place and Identity at Tug Fest: Reconstructing the Mississippi River (Lexington Books, 2022). His general area of study is in the areas of social construction of experience, identity, and place. He is currently conducting research for his next project that looks at nightlife and the emotional labor that is performed by employees of bars and nightclubs. To learn more about Michael O. Johnston you can go to his websiteGoogle Scholar, Twitter @ProfessorJohnst, or by email at

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

Support our show by becoming a premium member!

Visit New Books in Anthropology for the podcast. There is something wrong with this RSS-feed. Lorenz,