The operator of one of metro Detroit’s oldest funeral homes opens a private door, flips on the light in what was originally the house’s fruit cellar, and starts rummaging through a neatly arranged wall shelf.
“The cleaning lady’s going to kill me,” he says, moving aside a year’s supply of bug spray, glass cleaner, and disinfectants. Finally, from behind the bottles and cans emerge the objects of his search: several small cardboard boxes, each containing a few pounds of human cremains.
Each box is sealed and labeled with the decedent’s name and date of cremation. Most go back 25 or more years. Although the funeral director is hard-pressed to recall any personal details behind most of the names, he has a pretty good story involving the ashy afterlife of one estranged couple he plucks from the mix.
We’ll call the two boxes Ted and Eleanor. When Ted died in 1976, Eleanor helped arrange her ex-husband’s cremation, but neither she nor any of their children ever bothered to pick up his cremains from the funeral home.
Three years later, Eleanor died. She, too, was cremated. And abandoned. Today, 30 years after their passing, the divorced couple continue to share the intimacy of a dark storage shelf, snuggled in among the Raid and Scrubbing Bubbles. Despite occasional appeals to relatives, nobody has ever made the effort to come and haul their ashes out of there. “I guess it wasn’t a very happy family,” the director says.
According to the Cremation Association of North America, one in three deceased Americans are now cremated. This is a quantum leap from the 1960s, when social and religious taboos against the practice — especially among Roman Catholics — first started to lift. In Michigan today, roughly two out of every five bodies are sent to the crematorium. Accompanying this surge in popularity is a persisting problem: What to do with all those forsaken boxes of cremains? So far, no one has come up with a truly adequate solution.
Policies regarding unclaimed cremains “depends on the individual funeral home,” says Barry Hamilton, president of Wm. R. Hamilton Funeral Home in Mount Clemens. “The problem is that there’s no law that says you either have to hold on to them for so long or that you’re free to get rid of them.”
Many states have laws governing what funeral homes can do with unclaimed cremains. In Ohio, for example, a director can dispose of them after holding them for two years. In New York and Florida, the wait is 120 days. Other states have been slow to enact legislation. The last attempt to draft such a law in Michigan faded several years ago when the sponsoring lawmaker was term-limited out of office, says Phil Douma, executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association.
“There was no particular opposition to it,” he says. “It was just a low-urgency issue, and it never got a hearing before the legislative session ended.” The association is currently developing new draft legislation that would include the gray area of cremains in a package containing larger funeral industry issues, such as home licensing. “We expect to address it in the near future,” Douma says.
At Jarzembowski Funeral Home in Detroit, owner Tom Jarzembowski sits inside a paneled room with a portrait of his grandfather, who started the firm 90 years ago, looking down from a polished wall.
“We’ve never gotten rid of them,” Jarzembowski says of the 30 or so sets of cremains he has accumulated over the years. More recent ones sit on a desktop; older ones are stored in the basement. “But then, it’s never really been that big of a problem for us.” In 1981, the year his father — the second of three generations of undertakers — died, the home did 325 funerals and only one cremation. Today, one-quarter of Jarzembowski’s business involves cremations.
There are several reasons for the increase, ranging from religious and environmental considerations to a simple distaste for the idea of having one’s body decompose in the ground. The motivation for many is pure economics. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that the average price of a traditional funeral is $6,500, plus cemetery costs. By comparison, a direct cremation — where the body goes from the place of death to the funeral home, then is placed in a container and sent to the crematorium without public viewing — can cost less than $1,000.
Many families opting for cremation choose to pay extra for a chapel or graveside service, after which the cremains are either buried, scattered, or put inside an urn. Most urns are placed in a niche inside a building on the cemetery grounds called a columbarium. (Despite the popular image of Dad nestled between his bowling trophies and favorite books, relatively few actually are taken home.)
The balance of cremains, particularly in the case of direct cremations, are sent from the crematorium to the funeral home from where the body was shipped. Typically, those that aren’t retrieved in person within a reasonable period are sent out by certified mail by the funeral home to the next-of-kin’s address. However, many are returned as undeliverable. These are the ones that ultimately find themselves piled inside a closet, bookcase, or filing cabinet.
Tim Schramm, a vice president at Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Dearborn, comes across as the kind of punctilious caretaker a person would trust their cremains with, if it ever came to that. He regularly maintains his father’s grave at Glen Eden Cemetery. Earlier in the week, he had to put his 17-year-old miniature schnauzer to sleep; she now rests comfortably in a leaded-glass urn atop the mantel. So it’s no surprise when he says, “It’s just not right,” when asked about the issue of abandoned cremains.
Howe-Peterson’s 50-60 boxes are arranged alphabetically in a “dedicated storage unit.” Some date back to the 1940s, when the town’s most famous citizen, Henry Ford, was still alive. Despite the hopelessness of most cases, letters are sent out annually to the last known next-of-kin. “I work hard not to have them,” Schramm says. “It’s a pet peeve of mine.”
What’s going on here? Can people really be that callous, lazy, or irresponsible regarding their loved ones? The short answer: Yes.
But sometimes there’s a deeper emotion at play, suggest some directors, especially among low-income groups: shame over not having provided a grander, more traditional funeral. Better to just put the cremation behind them and move on. Also, society has been undergoing an attitudinal adjustment over the last generation or two. “I think back in the ’60s and ’70s, cremation was shorthand for ‘disappearance,’ ” says Tom Lynch, director of Lynch & Sons Funeral Home in Milford.
But funeral home operators also bear some responsibility. For years, they neglected to take down adequate contact information. Attempts to reach a family member by phone or mail often proved futile.
“That’s changed,” Lynch says. “As cremating has become more normative, families and directors have gotten much better about sharing information, about understanding the process and the options.” Directors all agree this has helped significantly reduce undeliverable cremains over the last several years, but it’s done nothing to remedy the problem of those that have been lying around for decades.
The aging boxes may be a minor nuisance, but directors can’t in good conscience just get rid of them, either. Aside from ethical considerations, it’s easier to hold on to them than to risk a lawsuit. Most attorneys say that criminal charges are unlikely to be filed against a funeral home that properly disposes of old cremains. But civil liability is a real possibility, even in those states where a law is already on the books.
Jarzembowski has been advised by a couple of directors to buy a plot and bury the boxes in a small vault. He could keep a list of all those buried so that if anybody were to later swing by the funeral home and ask for a relative’s cremains, he could direct them to the site and arrange for a disinterment, if requested. The only charge would be for opening and closing the grave. Hamilton Funeral Home went that route upon closing its Birmingham chapel last year, transferring 50 sets of decades-old cremains from that location to Elmwood Cemetery.
“We’ve talked about placing them all in a common grave,” Lynch says of the 100 or so cremains his firm’s six funeral homes collectively retain. “But then we’ve had occasions where, a generation later, somebody unexpectedly comes back and asks for their father, and we’re able to return him to his family.” Most directors have stories like that. “It’s about having dignity for the deceased,” Schramm insists.
For the time being, then, most directors likely will continue to do what they’ve doing all along — which is little more than to occasionally dust them.
That means Ted and Eleanor and thousands of similarly abandoned cremains — someone’s grandma, Uncle Wally, or that dimly remembered neighbor — will continue to bide time on some shelf, the likelihood of retrieval growing more remote with each passing day.
“Lots of times, a family will ask us to hold on to Mom for awhile until they feel it’s time to pick her up,” Schramm says. “There was one case where a man lost his young wife. He drove past our funeral home every day for 25 years until one day, he finally felt he could come in and get her.”