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Originally published May 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 23, 2008 at 8:41 AM

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Thousands of cremated remains go unclaimed

As more and more people turn to cremation, thousands of unclaimed remains have been stacking up in cabinets and storage rooms of funeral homes...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The facts are few, but this much is known: the baby was born in Seattle on March 17, 1992. He died that same day. Bonney-Watson Funeral Home cremated him.

Sixteen years later, the tiny box with his ashes sits inside the funeral home's storage unit in SeaTac, tucked alongside the cremated remains of more than 350 other departed souls — unclaimed, abandoned, possibly forgotten. Some date as far back as 1918.

Dean Smith, superintendent of Bonney-Watson's cemetery, holds on to the remains in case a long-lost relative shows up. It happens from time to time.

But for most of the dead stacked on the shelves of this concrete vault, that day will never come.

"We really don't have any choice but to keep them," said Smith, who's worked at the cemetery for 32 years. "I don't want to tell somebody that we took their loved one and dumped them in a hole someplace."

As more and more people turn to cremation, such dilemmas are playing out in funeral homes across the state and nationwide. Thousands of unclaimed remains have been stacking up in cabinets and storage rooms, with funeral directors reluctant to dispose of them, lest a family member come knocking years later.

"A lot of times, someone will forget to pick up Uncle Bob," said Jewell Steffensen, executive secretary for the Tacoma-based Washington State Funeral Directors Association. "Or they won't know what to do with the remains. So they just leave Aunt Martha behind."

And funeral homes bear the load.

Families usually pay for cremation beforehand. But when an urn goes unclaimed, funeral directors say, it eats at their bottom line. They spend weeks, even months, tracking down relatives to return the remains. The directors sometimes wind up buying plots to bury them.

There are no hard numbers on how many remains lie in wait, since mortuaries aren't required to report that, state and national officials say. Industry experts estimate it to be one in 10 cremations.

"It's a problem that almost every funeral home deals with," said Christine Anthony, spokeswoman for the state Department of Licensing, which oversees the mortuary business.

So much so, in fact, that the state funeral and cemetery boards pushed for a revision in state law to allow funeral homes to legally dispose of remains after 90 days instead of two years. The change took effect in 2005. Other states have similar statutes.

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But many funeral directors say they don't follow it, for fear of being sued. Plus, they say, funeral homes are in the unique business of dealing with grieving families. Patience and sensitivity are key.

"No one wants to explain to a relative, 'Sorry, Mom's gone,' " said Mike Nicodemus, board member of the Cremation Association of North America. "You're handling someone's loved one. They are coming to you and saying, 'We trust you.' "

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. Every attempt to reach a family member must be documented under state law.

But letters go unopened, and voice mails unreturned, they say.

Oftentimes, when someone is reached, "we hear promises that they will come in. And then they don't show up," Nicodemus said. "We call again and their phone is disconnected."

With the dramatic rise in cremation, the issue shows no signs of abating.

In 1975, 6 percent of Americans who died were cremated, according to data released last year by the Cremation Association of North America. Thirty years later, that figure climbed to more than 32 percent. By 2025, it's expected to exceed 57 percent.

Washington has one of the highest percentages of cremation nationwide, ranking third in the U.S., the data show. Nearly 64 percent of all deaths here lead to cremation.

Some say it's our unchurched culture. Funerals are often steeped in religious overtones, and in 2001, Washington was named the country's most secular state, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Others point out that cremation is simply more convenient, as families decentralize and settle around the country.

And it's cheaper. On average, a traditional casket and burial service costs $6,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Cremation can cost one-fifth the price.

But as the popularity of cremation grows, so do the number of unclaimed remains, said Cameron Smock, chief operating officer for Bonney-Watson, Seattle's oldest funeral home.

Transients and the elderly who die alone at long-term care facilities often end up in permanent storage, he said. Either no next of kin is listed, or attempts to reach distant relatives prove unsuccessful.

Then there are families who hold services, cremate their loved one, but overlook that final step — taking the remains.

"I don't think people do it to be negligent," Smock said. "For whatever reason, they forget about it. Or they can't deal with it emotionally. Or the thought of having [the urn] on their shelf is just overwhelming."

Paul Elvig understands.

In 2002, the Everett man searched for the grave of his great-great-grandmother who died 60 years ago, but couldn't find it. He wanted to photograph her burial site as part of a family-tree project, he said.

He later discovered she'd been cremated and her remains forgotten inside a cabinet at Evergreen-Washelli Funeral Home and Cemetery in Seattle. The irony: Elvig was general manager of the funeral home.

"It's kind of embarrassing," said Elvig, who's now retired. "Here I am, in the business, and it happened [in my family]. But dealing with cremated remains ... that isn't the most pleasant decision to make. Let's remember why people put this off."

At Washington Memorial Cemetery in SeaTac, where Smith works, dusty containers ranging in size fill the 8-by-6-foot storage unit, the contents locked behind a steel-frame door. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling. Remains end up here after one to two years of trying to contact a family.

One shelf holds 50 boxes measuring just 4 inches high. Babies, Smith says. He focuses on one box containing the remains of infant twins. Smith, 58, has two children himself and used to dig infant graves at the cemetery. He stopped after his kids were born, he said.

He picks up the cardboard box. All these years on the job, he says, and he doesn't get how parents could walk away. Still, he feels for them.

"A memory is a living thing," Smith says. "As long as the cremated remains are here, then it's not really over, you know? Some people don't want to have an end."

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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