There are 40,000 unidentified bodies and remains in the United States, reports 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty reported on The Early Show Monday.
Until now, there hasn't been any system to connect those remains with people looking for missing family members.
But, says Moriarty, that's about to change, in part because of a determined mother in Ohio.
Debra Culberson says her daughter, Carrie Culberson, was "very beautiful, but more so than that, she was just beautiful inside. She was always happy, and ... she would try to make the mood light." A small town girl who left a big impression.
But on Aug. 28, 1996, Carrie simply vanished.
Since then, Debra has been on a mission, not only to find Carrie, but to help other parents of missing children find theirs.
"I just need to know where she is," Debra says.
Carrie was 22, living with her mom and little sister in the village of Blanchester, Ohio, until she went out with friends one night, and just didn't come home.
Police suspected ex-boyfriend Vince Doan was involved. Carrie had obtained a restraining order after she said he beat and abused her.
Without a body, prosecutors were reluctant to charge Doan, but in 1997, he was tried and convicted of Carrie's murder. Even then, Doan refused to say what he did with Carrie's body.
For the past dozen years, Debra has searched for her daughter by scanning newspapers from neighboring counties and states, one-by-one, then calling police whenever she read a body had been found. She got nowhere.
"For years," says Kentucky State Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Emily Craig, "we've had this world going on with the unidentified dead, we've had this world going on with the missing, and trying to put them together ... (it was as if) they were in two different worlds."
"It could be in one county that a body is found, and there's no way for someone in another body to know that," Moriarty points out. "There's never been a connection until now."
Craig, whose state borders Ohio, heard from Debra every time a body was found. That's why Craig helped create the national computer database appropriately called NamUS.
It will try to match unidentified bodies, Jane and John Does, to the list of people reported missing each year.
"We have no guarantee that it's gonna work," says Craig, "but anything is better than what we've had."
A major problem, she says, has been collecting the data needed to properly identify remains. "So many people think that every dead person is lying around like Elvis, you know, for identification by eye color, hair color, moles, scars, tattoos, things like that," Craig says. " ... and, at least in our climate, here in Kentucky, you can go from a living person to a skeleton in (just) two weeks."
So, when Craig meets with coroners and medical examiners -- those most likely to receive skeletons and human remains -- she encourages them to include as many details as possible. "I've got pictures of shoes, I've got pictures of shirts, I've got pictures of jewelry." Craig says, "I've got pictures of tattoos -- all the stuff that people can look at, and hopefully somebody will see what they're looking for."
NamUS went into service online earlier this month. Debra can now continue her search for Carrie -- from her own study.
"Once I find Carrie's remains," Debra says, "that grieving process, I hope, will begin, and then the healing will start. That's all I want is to find peace."
On The Early Show Tuesday, Moriarty reported on Culberson testing NamUS: