Missing Persons

Loss is a small word but the cause of a massive array of overwhelming emotions. Loss of a loved one through natural death is hard enough to cope with, but losing someone unexpectedly because of an accident or criminal intervention multiplies every difficult emotion. What could be worse?

There is something worse which thousands of unfortunate people have to deal with every day. And for most of them, I mean “every day” of their lives. This is the utter devastation caused by losing someone suddenly when there isn’t even a corpse to grieve over. In fact, the sufferer does not know if there has been a death, and that is what makes this condition worse than anything. Each country around the world recognizes this topic as Missing Persons, and it is a tragic and bizarre phenomenon.

When you tot up the worldwide numbers, hundreds and hundreds of human beings, all belonging to families of one description or another, just VANISH every year from the planet.

Of course, as you start to interrogate the statistics, many missing persons’ cases begin to fall into possibly explainable categories … but the analysis still leaves many, many mysteries. Regardless, the “not knowing for sure” element torments the family relatives left behind in every case where the body or whereabouts of the missing person is never identified.

The “lost soul” could be a child or adult. The children’s category brings its own set of woes. A younger child would not deliberately run away from home, so the worst is feared. Having to imagine the end is more terrible than knowing a young life has perished for certain … but what if he or she was inexplicably abducted, and lives on? The pain of uncertainly is merciless.

When an adult disappears, the concerns are initially different. A mentally competent adult has the right to break contact with blood relatives or loved ones, if he or she so wishes. Police agencies will not investigate a missing person case until it has been established that some form of misadventure has caused the sudden loss. Thankfully, though, national agencies are starting to track and log all categories of reports involving missing persons so that the phenomenon can be better understood. The collated figures are mind-boggling, especially in the densely populated countries.

For example, in the USA, over 700,000 names per year are classed as “missing” at some point. That’s around 2,000 people per day being reported missing – after local searches! I was relieved to learn that the FBI can remove the vast majority of these American residents from their database as each temporarily missing person is traced. However, at any one time, about 48,000 Americans are being actively searched for to some extent.

We need to examine smaller numbers to really grasp the situation. In my own country of Ireland, with a modest population of circa 4.5 million in the Republic, it is reported that about 8,000 people per annum turn up on the Missing Persons register, for a while at least. Not including the rarer cases of missing young juveniles, that works out to reveal that 1 in every 500 resident Irish adults could be declared as “missing” – each year. When the voluntary runaways and the mentally vulnerable have been traced, we are still left with a few dozen folk who just vanish, year on year, on a comparatively small but civilized island. And the few dozen excludes “missing bodies” not recovered after a known catastrophe, such as fishermen lost at sea following a shipping disaster. This state of affairs is repeated around the world, on a much bigger scale. Put crudely, there are permanently Missing Persons everywhere. So, where do all these recognizable and often much-loved people disappear to?

A gruesome but converse section of national databases is sensibly being put together by the authorities in each country responsible for logging names and descriptions of Missing Persons [MP]. This is a growing worldwide register known as the MPUB index. The UB part stands for “unidentified bodies.” A strange twist to the MP phenomenon is that a worryingly high number of dead bodies remain unidentified around the globe, every year. Modern technology is finally allowing a few of the long-lost missing persons to be chalked off the statistics when a match is found in the UB section, somewhere. For some desperate families, peace of mind is granted and the natural grieving process can run its course.

It is a controversial subject as to whether the public at large should be allowed to view the growing UB database. I give advanced warning to anyone who comes across the accessible sections of the MPUB online to be prepared for some disturbing images. Viewing human corpses is a very unpleasant business for most of us delicate souls – but how else can tormented relatives complete the ultimate search for their particular MP? Advances in DNA technology are permitting family matches to be made to some UB’s. As you might imagine, visual recognition is impossible in many circumstances. The UK is taking the lead with this sensitive project. In Britain alone, over 1,100 dead bodies from the last 50 years are unidentified and therefore unclaimed. UB’s discovered as far back as the 1950’s are being exhumed from burial grounds to allow DNA testing samples to be taken. Believe me, it is better to know where your loved one rests rather than live a life in purgatory, if not Hell on Earth.

This subject matter came to my attention midway through my search for Merrill. He was an undeclared Missing Person, some time just before WW2. I started to weigh up all the options. What happened to a fairly well-known man about town? There was absolutely no evidence to support the theory of Merrill living in secret under an alias, until a natural death in old age. In fact, we unearthed one vital piece of paper which tells us that his life ended abruptly. As such, we knew the time and place of death within a rational envelope of accuracy, but we had no info about the circumstances.

Suicide in a remote wilderness was ruled out after I researched psychopathic tendencies. For about the last decade of his life, Merrill’s behavior matched the clinical definition of a psychopath on many counts. An undiscovered accidental death? Unlikely in the populated towns and cities which Merrill frequented. Sudden natural death? Only if Merrill was alone on a mountain top. Implausible. All these scenarios would normally lead to an eventual UB or John Doe of some description, even if it was just skeletal remains. Whilst the police authorities in Midwest America of the 1930’s did not have the modern advances in post-mortem science, they did circulate regular regional bulletins to notify other law offices and the general public about unclaimed corpses. The relatives of missing citizens would have been contacted after each grisly find. The disappearance of a high-flying businessman and family man would have remained in the public eye – had it been reported.

But all this becomes inconsequential. At least one person knew that Merrill was gone forever. My “Where’s Merrill?” novel exposes who this was. Nonetheless, the more intriguing aspect of Merrill’s demise is that it was not officially registered. To some, Merrill was gone. To others, he was a Missing Person. My job was to work out how many associates of Merrill fell into the first category. We did find evidence that more than one close associate knew more about the “end game” than they ever disclosed. That nugget of info has not been published … yet.

The coming together of those who worked on the “Where’s Merrill?” project resulted in a strange MP coincidence. Obviously, Tim had a Missing Person; a grandfather without even a name, at the start. The mystery surrounding Merrill’s unconfirmed resting place still niggles away at a grandson who never got the chance to meet his mother’s parents. But it was only by accident that the research team members realized that each was familiar with the never-ending despair of the MP syndrome. Kathy from the Midwest has a fondly-remembered relative who qualifies for inclusion on the discomforting MP database which every family should dread. As with all MP cases, personal circumstances suggest possibilities, but the nightmare of uncertainty consumes the MP’s nearest and dearest.

Sue and I have that associated hole in our hearts too. Without belittling the magnitude of human loss, the sudden disappearance of a pet animal evokes all the symptoms of MP anxiety in its own way. Many small pets are classed as full members of the household and when they’re not around one day, the whole ambiance of a family home is changed forever. We “lost” a much-loved pet on an ill-fated day and, despite endless and fruitless searches, the “not knowing” is a painful memory that is excruciatingly hard to subdue. A cruel consolation is that I can now empathize more fully with the suffering families of a missing soul of any description. As shown above, there are a lot of us around.

Of course, there are increased reasons for a roaming domestic animal not returning home. There are predators lurking everywhere, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. In the quirky world of Gearoid O’Neary, my own heartache helped to answer that bothersome question, “Where’s Merrill?

Back to More Merrill Musings

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