Curious What Happens To Unclaimed Cremated Remains
Cremation at death is steadily gaining in popularity, but so is the number of deceased people whose ashes are abandoned at funeral homes and cemeteries.
Which raises a question: What’s happening to all the unclaimed cremated remains?
Anne Roan, is funeral director at the Conley Funeral Home in Brockton, one of the state’s 500 funeral homes holding hundreds of unclaimed cremated remains.
“This is where we’ve been keeping the urns,” she says, pointing to boxes on a shelf which hold the cremated remains of people left at the funeral home.
“This is the smallest of the boxes that we have up above,” Roan says, taking one down. “This was a stillborn baby boy that mum chose to have him cremated and, as of yet, has not come back to pick him up.
“It makes me sad,” she says. “I mean these people each lived a life. It should be a life that should be remembered by somebody. Sometimes I just think we’re a very disposable society.”
WHAT HAPPENS TO CREMATED REMAINS?
More remains left unclaimed can be found at Doherty Funeral Service in Somerville. “We have several. I would say between eight and 10,” says funeral director Nancy Doherty-Neri.
“Because a person’s been cremated it doesn’t change who that person was or who that person is, the deceased person,” she says. “Would you leave your family member’s body, not cremated, at a funeral home? I don’t think so.”
So what happens to a person’s cremated remains if no one claims them? At Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, they end up in an underground bunker. It’s called the receiving tomb, and right now there are about 150 unclaimed remains inside.
“There’s been no correspondence at all with families regarding these remains, these individuals, they have been forgotten,” says Sean O’Regan, vice president of operations at Mount Auburn.
The cemetery has its own crematory, where bodies are reduced to finely ground bone in ovens operating at 1600 degrees. It also has hundreds of cremated remains which are claimed. They are on display in niches in its columbarium or safely stored in an urn vault.
O’Regan says as the popularity of cremation increases, so does the number of cremated remains that are abandoned by loved ones.
“It’s definitely increasing, and as an industry we just need to make everybody aware that the cremation itself is not the final disposition,” he says. “You can do scattering. You can do an in-ground burial, above-ground scattering, columbarium niche, bring the urn home and put it on your shelf.
Two years ago, a law was passed in Massachusetts allowing cemeteries and funeral homes to bury or scatter cremated remains which go unclaimed for one year. After going to great lengths to find family members, through phone calls and certified letters, Anne Roan is taking advantage of the new law.
“Our decision was to purchase a single grave here in the city-run cemetery in the city of Brockton and to place all these unclaimed cremains in a vault,” Roan says.
“If God forbid anyone comes out of the woodwork down the road, we can send them to the cemetery and say, ‘Yes, we did hang on and try to locate someone regarding your mother’s cremains.’”
The burial of those unclaimed remains will cost the Conley Funeral Home more than $3,000 and include a flat gravestone with the names of the deceased.
GRAPPLING WITH THE PROBLEM
William Moore, president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, says funeral homes across the country are grappling with the problem of unclaimed cremated remains.
“There is no single answer to why a family fails to claim the cremated remains of their loved one,” Moore says.
“As funeral directors we believe that once we are entrusted with the care of that deceased person it is our duty to continue our care until their family claims their remains or until they can be laid to rest in a dignified and respectful manner.”
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