We Remember What Has Been Discarded


A recent news story told of the discovery of 2,246 human remains in a garage in Illinois. 

Ulrich Klopfer was a doctor and when he died at the age of 79, he left behind a cluttered home. His house and garage and sheds were stuffed, floor to ceiling, full of junk and boxes and the detritus of eight decades of living. As his wife and family sorted through his belongings after his death, they found disturbing connections to the abortion clinics he operated in Indiana. Some of the boxes contained small plastic bags sealed with formalin — a preserving agent — and 2,246 human remains.

It’s interesting to note the precision of that number. It was reported by news sources as being exactly 2,246. Not “more than 2,000.” Not “about 2,250.” The number is 2,246 because it represents each of 2,246 human lives, and human lives are worth counting exactly.

In fact, several weeks later, investigators found more remains in a vehicle Klopfer had abandoned. Again, they counted exactly — they discovered 165 remains, which brought the total to 2,411. News outlets went to the trouble to update their reporting to include the precise number of remains that were found.

To do real justice here, though, we should really double that number. That bigger number — 4,822 — would represent the loss of 2,411 human lives as well as the lives of 2,411 mothers who faced an excruciating decision and were forever scarred by those deaths. 

Investigators found 2,411 remains at Klopfer’s home, but take a moment to read between the lines. That number had to be counted and confirmed. A law enforcement team had to search through all of Klopfer’s accumulated stuff — hundreds and hundreds of boxes — to make sure there weren’t any remains they missed. They had to empty the home and garage and sheds and attic and basement and closets and trunks and the clinics he abandoned. They had to search everywhere to make sure they didn’t overlook a single human life.

Because human lives are worth counting exactly.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, ever,” said Mike Kelley, the Illinois county sheriff who oversaw the investigation. “It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.” 

That’s an amazing statement coming from someone who has been working in law enforcement for 31 years. This is a sheriff who has investigated accidents, abuse, and murders of the worst kind — all terrible violations of human dignity that leave us with a black hole in our hearts. Yet he said that searching Klopfer’s home to account for the remains there was unlike anything he’s ever seen. 

How could such a seasoned sheriff say that? Because at that home, Kelley had to search for and count 2,411 ways that we have taken something precious and treated it like junk. Because life is a gift, and it deserves to be protected, and the vulnerable people responsible for it deserve to be protected. Because a gift like that shouldn’t be stored in a small plastic bag sealed with formalin and stuffed in a box stacked among a packrat’s junk in a garage in Illinois. 

Law enforcement officials are still trying to uncover why Klopfer stored those remains at his home. Records indicate that the deaths happened between 2000 and 2002 at the clinics he ran in Indiana. Perhaps it was cheaper to store the remains at his home than dealing with them properly. Perhaps they just became part of the accumulation of meaningless stuff he ran out of space to store. Perhaps he just forgot about them. 

But we remember — we remember 2,411 human lives, and 2,411 mothers. Because human lives are worth counting exactly.

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