Maybe it’s because the landscape has changed, the result of a pandemic which, within a year, killed, maimed, and left us suspicious of coming in contact, or even proximity, of one another.
Perhaps it’s that mortality is always the underlying subject on television and across Zoom meetings, locked inside the words we speak or think, that I’m drawn to her.
For the second time in my Great-aunt Glenna’s life, she is missing. The first time was during her late teens and early twenties when she was admitted to a mental institution, given the byline of ‘inmate,’ and was disappeared for fifteen years.
No one besides other inmates, doctors, and nursing staff knew what happened inside the walls of State Hospital South, which is what piqued my curiosity in the first place. And now, again, Glenna is gone without a trace, without an explanation, disappeared, ignored, and forgotten.
At the beginning of my journey, I had assumed a lot of things. I thought I could request the death certificate of a relative, give a copy to the hospital that housed her sixty-six years ago, and (yes, with some difficulty) get her medical records. I believed with these documents I could connect the puzzle pieces to Glenna’s life.
Not once did it occur to me that I could not get her death certificate or even a copy of it. There was not a single thought that the documentation of someone so terribly ignored and neglected while she was living would be so fiercely protected in her death.
“You need a reason to obtain her death certificate,” someone from the Salt Lake County Vital Records Department told me.
“A reason? Like what?”
“Well, if you were contesting her will. Or if there was some problem with a loan with her name on it, something like that.”
“So, the only way I can get my Aunt’s death certificate is if I need it for some money reason?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” the woman said. “For example, If you had to get your relative’s name off your lease to avoid eviction, then you can have it.”
“So, I wouldn’t get sued and thrown out on the street?”
“I can’t give you a death certificate for no reason,” she said.
“For fraud, maybe identity theft. I don’t know who you are and what you’re going to do with a death certificate.”
“I’m trying to get her medical records released,” I said.
“Well, I know you say that, but I don’t know that.”
“So, it is all about money, then.”
“No, no, nothing like that, it’s more of a fraud issue.”
“Yeah, money—you don’t want to get sued either.” I thanked the woman and hung up.
Identity theft? Was she kidding me? I am not that savvy, at least when it comes to technology. However, right there, under my Aunt’s date of death was the nine digits of her social security number for all of cyberdom to see.
The second most baffling thing to discover was that no one seemed to know where Glenna was buried or even if she had been.
Every day last week, I made phone calls to cemeteries up and down the Wasatch Front looking for her. Was Glenna on the premises under a misspelled name? Was she in a vault? Was there a record of her cremation?
“You’ll probably need her Death Certificate,” one well-intentioned mortuary worker told me. “At least you could narrow down the county she died in.”
My Great-grandma had purchased a burial plot right next to her own for her daughter, Glenna. Her son, John, however, decided to sell that plot once Glenna moved in with him towards the end of her life.
I wondered what someone who might be hurting for money, someone who sold off his sister’s burial plot, would have done once Glenna died?
I looked up organ donation centers and places that cremated bodies and called and left messages.
The University of Utah’s School of Medicine, Neurobiology Department is one of Utah’s only places that takes whole-body donations. The donation program will pick up the body within a fifty-mile radius of Salt Lake City and cremate it at no cost.
I called them, too. A man from the program called me back.
He asked me her name and date of death. He left me on hold while he combed through databases and archives, searching for her.
“I put her name in three times and got nothing back,” he told me. We talked about where she could be and if perhaps there could be a misspelling of her name on accounts, and he checked those for me, too.
Someone from Yes!Utah, an organ donation company, called me back. “We don’t do full body donations here,” she said, “Have you tried calling the Neurobiology Department at the U of U?”
Another woman who worked at a depository and cemetery also called me back. I told her who I was looking for and the ways I tried finding her.
“Give me a minute,” she said and put me on hold. After some time, she picked up the phone, “I found a Glenna Marriott in Ben Lomond Cemetery.”
We compared birth dates. It wasn’t my Glenna.
“Look, I’m not supposed to do this,” she told me as she closed out each archive and cemetery directory in the state of Utah, “but there’s no record of your Aunt.”
“So, she wasn’t cremated?”
“She wasn’t cremated or buried anywhere in Utah—nowhere. But you’re not listening to me, there is no record of your Aunt’s death anywhere.”
She wouldn’t elaborate, and I thanked her for her time.
What did it mean if Glenna didn’t have a death certificate? In what circumstance would someone neglect filling out a form stating a family member had died?
Maybe the reason Glenna wasn’t reported dead was that she was more valuable to someone alive? Could my Great-uncle have continued depositing Glenna’s social security checks after she had died? Possibly. According to the SSA (social security administration), Glenna had a death date in 2004, so someone found out.
Why wouldn’t she have a death certificate? I don’t know, but I’ve got to find out!