Burning Questions about Cremation: Skeletons in the Closet

Lurking deep within dark, shadowy closets of funeral homes around the world are shelves of dust covered boxes and urns, each containing the cremated remains of individuals which go unclaimed.

If you’re honest, unclaimed cremains probably don’t cross your mind that much. Problem is, they don’t really cross anybody’s mind. They are containers of ashes abandoned, left, forgotten. Each container, however, has a story. Each was once a body of a person; each a life that came to an end. And each awaits a final resting place.

Unclaimed cremains line shelves at Oregon State Hospital
Unclaimed cremains line shelves at Oregon State Hospital; Copyright Christopher Payne. Click image for link to website.

The picture above caught my eye a few months ago, and after doing a little digging, I’ve come to find out that unclaimed cremains are a serious issue. This particular photograph is one from a storage closet at Oregon State Hospital. The urns contain ashes of individuals who lived and worked at the hospital between 1914 and 1970. In total, over 3,000 go unclaimed to this day despite efforts to reunite them with family and friends.

Cremation is becoming an increasingly popular method of disposition for many Americans, and it is one that has valid economic and practical advantages over traditional burial. Over the past few decades, sales of cremation merchandise such as urns and jewelry have skyrocketed. While scattering gardens, niches, urns and columbariums continue to gain popularity among mainstream consumers, “pauper” plots for burial of unclaimed cremains remain controversial. It seems people have a problem with burying the containers, so they are left to collect dust and cobwebs until the occasional funeral home employee, such as myself, wipes them off and gives them some TLC.

The reasons for cremains going unclaimed are varied.

-Sometimes people would simply rather leave cremains unclaimed than pay for the cremation. Sad, but true.

-Sometimes people are cremated and none of the family or friends step forward to claim the cremains for personal/relational reasons or whathaveyou. I’ve even heard people say they’re just plain creeped out by cremains and wouldn’t want them anyway.

-Sometimes people are unclaimed and are eventually cremated, and then the cremains go unclaimed too. This happens in rare situations such as at prisons and mental institutions, and with unidentified bodies. (Disclaimer: this rarely happens. And it is extremely controversial. In most of these types of situations, the body is buried. Cremation is more of a final final disposition where the remains are reduced to ashes, whereas a buried body could be disinterred at a later time if a need arose.)

Whatever the reason behind the unclaimed cremains, it is true that funeral homes bear the brunt of their storage. There is often a shelf or cabinet somewhere in the bowels of the building which is designated as the holding place for the containers. The time limit for storage, however, is typically indefinite and the problem of unclaimed cremains lacks a good solution. It is sad to think that people allow their loved ones to go unclaimed in life or in death, but it does happen, and probably more often than you think.

2 thoughts on “Burning Questions about Cremation: Skeletons in the Closet

  1. That won’t happen to me, I hope. I already have my Folgers coffee can saved for my ashes. It will be your responsibility to put them in there, and bury them at Bethesda.

    1. Yes ma’am! But remember….. I have a pretty urn that you would like too! And I’ll have to make a diamond or two!

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