As the number of cremations rises, so does the number of cremains that remain unclaimed at funeral homes
By JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO – H-P Features Writer
Published: Sunday, April 11, 2010 1:07 PM EDT
“This one is from 1986,” he says before gently returning it to the gray metal shelving unit in the back room of his South Haven funeral home.
“This is from 1996 … ’99 … another ’96 … ’98 … 2003,” he says, repeating the ritual.
The containers may look ordinary, but it’s what’s inside them that sets this storage area apart. Each one of these small cardboard boxes contains the cremated human remains of those who have been left behind.
Filbrandt, who owns and operates Filbrandt Family Funeral Home, holds on to the 20 or so he’s accumulated over the years, just in case a long-lost relative shows up to claim them. It does happen from time to time, he says. But for most of the dead stacked on this shelf, that day will never come.
As more and more people turn to cremation, funeral home owners, directors and crematories across Southwest Michigan and nationwide are facing the growing dilemma of what to do with unclaimed cremated remains left in their custody.
Of the more than 700,000 cremations performed in the United States each year, the Chicago-based Cremation Association of America estimates that nearly 5 percent, or 35,000, cremated human remains go unclaimed. If predictions for the continued growth of cremation are accurate, in 15 years as many as 70,000 cremated remains could go unclaimed each year.
“Most people, about 90 percent, know what they want to do with their loved one after cremation,” Filbrandt says. “Another 5 percent don’t know what they are going to do so they decide to take them home until they can find a special place. The other 5 percent, for whatever reason, just don’t pick them up. That’s when we end up with these cremated remains.”
A moral dilemma
Although most funeral homes require families to pay for cremation beforehand, when these remains go unclaimed, funeral directors say, it leaves them with both a moral and legal quandary.
“In Michigan, the current law gives the next of kin the statutory right to possess cremated remains,” says Phil Douma, executive director for the Michigan Funeral Directors Association. “The feeling of funeral directors is that because of that right, they are obligated to hold on to these unclaimed cremated remains in perpetuity. And that poses a real issue.”
The lingering question: Why would someone who has taken the care to have a loved one cremated not take the final step to pick up the remains?
“Sometimes people don’t know what to do with them,” says the Rev. Emery M. Varrie, who owns Family Funeral Home in Benton Harbor. “They choose not to deal with it. Sometimes we just have to make a joke about it. We’ll come in and say, ‘Well, it looks like Tanya’s still with us.’”
Some of the same factors driving the popularity of cremations are also increasing the number of unclaimed remains, including the financial burden that comes with the loss of life. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the median cost for a traditional funeral is $7,300. The median cost for cremation is $1,650, including final disposition of the remains. But even that can be too expensive for some families. So they opt for the most basic cremation, which can cost as little as $500, and then walk away.
“I’ve been in the business for 20 years, and it is commonplace,” says Tim Brown, owner of Brown Family Funeral Home in Niles. “Sometimes people have a service and they have closure and that’s it. It’s sad. For me, one set of unclaimed remains is too much.”
In other cases, families aren’t especially close and no one wants to take responsibility for a distant relative. The elderly may have decided to retire in states far away from the communities where they lived most of their lives or they die alone, with no living relatives or friends. Some people arranging for cremation even mistakenly assume that it is an end in itself.
“From a legal standpoint we have to keep track of (the remains) so if any of their families come back we can document where they have been placed and retrieve them,” Filbrandt says, “even if we know the likelihood of that happening is slim.”
Funeral directors often spend months, even years, tracking down relatives to return unclaimed remains. After years of failed attempts, some will even buy plots for a final disposition at their own expense.
Filbrandt, who also worked for Calvin Funeral Home, even took responsibility for their unclaimed cremated remains when the company went out of business seven years ago. Since many of these remains had gone unclaimed for more than 20 years, he purchased a small grave space, placed six of the small cardboard boxes in a child-size coffin, and buried them at a local cemetery.
“I feel that everyone is entitled to a decent burial,” Filbrandt says. “We even went to the expense of putting all their names on a marker.”
Brown, meanwhile, has placed some unclaimed cremated remains at North Shore Memory Gardens in Hagar Shores.
“We have a crypt that we keep them in that is used only for that reason,” says Gladys Herder, office manager of North Shore Memory Gardens. “Sometimes they get moved around if someone comes in and wants to purchase that particular crypt, which of course isn’t as easy as opening a drawer.”
Cremation becoming more common
Until recently, storing these ashes has been little more than a nuisance for most area funeral homes. But the rapid rise in cremation’s popularity has also led to a larger number of unclaimed remains.
Before 1975, just 6 percent of families were choosing cremation over burial; now, 39 percent select cremation. In the next 15 years, that percentage is expected to approach 60 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
“I know funeral directors from all across the country who are dealing with this issue,” says Ashley Cozine, a spokesperson with the Brookfield, Wis.-based National Funeral Directors Association. “And if the rate of cremation continues to grow, it’s only going to be a situation that becomes more and more prevalent.”
The increase is being driven in part by cremation’s cheaper cost and in part by the fact that fewer extended families are rooted in one specific place, which means they don’t live close enough to visit a loved one’s grave site. Cremation has also gained acceptance among various religious faiths and ethnic groups. Religions that previously frowned upon cremation are now understanding its value to families and are adjusting their doctrines to accommodate the choice.
In the past, Hispanic and black families were less likely to choose cremation, but even that is changing. Varrie, who estimates his business now does 45 percent of all black funerals in the area, has seen that firsthand.
“Growing up, I hadn’t even heard of cremation,” Varrie says. “It wasn’t something that was done in the black community, but the past couple of years now, more and more people have wanted to be cremated.”
While only a handful of states have laws addressing disposition of unclaimed cremated remains, Michigan funeral directors are hoping that new legislation will at least provide them with some protection from liability.
Last year, the state Legislature enacted two statutes – Public Act 148 and Public Act 149 – that will go into effect on July 1.
The Missing in America Project propelled the first statute that will help identify and properly bury the unclaimed cremated remains of Michigan veterans. Under current Michigan law, state funeral professionals are prohibited from arranging a proper disposition for a veteran’s cremated remains without permission from the next of kin. This legislation will allow funeral homes to share information about their unclaimed ashes with veterans groups who can then check the names of those eligible for interment in a veterans cemetery.
The second statute deals with the wider problem of unclaimed remains, allowing funeral homes to bury the cremated remains at a cemetery or place them in a crypt or a columbarium 30 days after sending written notification to their next of kin at their last known address. Both statutes consider remains to be unclaimed after six months.
Cozine says that it makes sense for states to look at legislation but that many directors may still choose to store them at the funeral home instead of paying to have these remains buried.
“Most funeral homes don’t own their own cemeteries, so while legally they may be able to provide final disposition of these remains there is still a cost involved,” Cozine says. “That’s why we are seeing many funeral homes adopting policies, including leaving a deposit so if these cremated remains are not picked up they at least can use that money to place them at a cemetery.”
In addition to deposits, some funeral directors are requiring that arrangements for disposition be decided and identified in writing before cremation can begin. Brown says he is considering a $35 per day charge for the storage of cremated remains after 30 days. Varrie also believes an additional charge may be necessary.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” Varrie says.” Maybe we do need to charge people for storage, but we haven’t even begun to address that yet.”
Cozine says he fears that some of the new laws popping up across the country, including Michigan’s new statutes, still may not be enough to protect funeral directors from the liability of dealing with unclaimed remains.
“There’s a liability issue that still lingers, even if they can bury them,” Cozine says. “They still must know where those remains are if a relative does come back to claim them. They have to make sure they maintain their records. Then there’s the worst case scenario. What if you have a fire or a flood? The records may be gone but you are still liable for those unclaimed remains. Just look at New Orleans as an example.”
John Ross, director of the Cremation Association of North America, believes the legislation will help solve some of the legal concerns but the emotional burden on funeral directors remains.
“I think most funeral directors know of their legal recourse, but people in the funeral service business are very compassionate,” Ross says. “They have this thought in the back of their mind that ‘What if a family member comes forward?’ That’s why so many of them will continue to hold onto these remains regardless of the law.”
So the ashes linger, held in storage. Funeral directors make phone calls to next of kin. They send registered letters, seeking permission for scattering or burial. But letters go unopened, and voice mails unreturned.
“No matter what we do,” Filbrandt says, “some people just don’t feel like they are responsible once their loved one has been cremated. When this happens, we are left holding the bag, but I feel – no, I know – it is the right thing to do.”