Plastic Cremation Urns & Cardboard Boxes Hold Unclaimed Cremation Ashes

by J. Malec


Image by IQRemix*

Some years ago while working in the rental housing industry, our staff came across a box of cremated remains. The box was found in a basement storage unit. We were surprised and shocked.

We tried to make contact with several previous tenants, in hopes of finding the owner of the ashes. But as contact information changes frequently, we had no luck. Eventually we settled on returning the cremains to the Cremation Society of Minnesota, where they will stay until claimed.

23,000 funeral homes in North America admit they house unclaimed cremation ashes. “It’s a secret we keep. We don’t like to talk about it and I think we should begin to,” Geoff Carnell, owner of Carnell’s Funeral Home, told Global News in a story published in 2014.

There are an estimated two million unclaimed cremation urns at funeral homes across the country, according to the Cremation Association of North America (“CANA”) and quoted at In Global News’ recently published story on the issue, they state:

Executive director Barbara Kemmis [of CANA] said it can be tied back to how people grieve a loss. She said people may be confused and overwhelmed when going through the grieving process. “Sometimes after a few years, when the grief has lessened … you think ‘Well, I still don’t know what to do,’” she said. Funeral homes are often hesitant to bury or scatter the remains, in case family members return later to claim them. But, Kemmis said there are some funeral homes that do take matters into their own hands and keep a record of who was scattered and the efforts made to reach family members beforehand.

Boxes in a file cabinet make unlikely cremation urns

Dr. Steven Shapiro, Vermont’s chief medical examiner, was quoted in a recent article in Seven Days"An indigent ends up in an emergency room," said Shapiro. He or she dies, the hospital winds up with an unwanted corpse. "What are they going to do with it? So they turf it to us."

The article, written by Molly Walsh, continues:

Although he won't disclose the exact number of unclaimed bodies he deals with annually, Shapiro said it's growing. With the addition of Cooler B, installed a few years ago because unclaimed bodies were taking up too much space in Cooler A, he can accommodate 50.
… Shapiro can only speculate why more bodies are being abandoned today than they were 80 years ago. It could be that families are more fractured, he said, or that small towns that once embraced their eccentric citizens are no longer doing so. … Shapiro puts off state-funded cremation as long as he can, but even refrigerated bodies decompose, and the office can't store them forever.


The bodies that have been cremated can be found in cardboard boxes in file cabinets.

Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, was also interviewed. Slocum views the problem as having to do with the current state of funeral customs, advocating that we return to the centuries-old practice of placing responsibility for tending to the dead with the family.

Urns for ashes with name tags

When someone dies In Ogden, Utah, and the body is not claimed, the body is cremated. Mike Leavitt's Mortuary of Ogden, Utah, contracts with Weber County to cremate unclaimed bodies. Each body is tagged with a stainless steel medallion with an identifying number. Following cremation, the medallion sits on the corresponding cremation urn. But many of the cremains are still left unclaimed afterward. KUTV Utah asks in a news segment, “Who do these unclaimed ashes represent?” Leavitt responds:
Indigents. People that have come through town, died, nobody knows where they are or who they are. We will get on the phone and call friends, family, anyone that was associated with that person and try to get them to find out information; try to get them to claim that body. 80 percent of the time, somebody will eventually claim the body that comes from the county to this mortuary. It's that other 20 percent that begins to build the stockpile of the unclaimed.


The problem has become so great that some states are passing laws allowing cemeteries and funeral homes to scatter or bury unclaimed cremains after a year. Some laws permit scattering or burying after as little as sixty days. Other funeral directors don’t feel comfortable doing anything other than storing the ashes.

In a unique effort to solve the problem, Michael Neal, a funeral director in Pennsylvania, has launched a website called Neal hopes that his website can start to link some of those cremains to families.

"I believe this is the first website of its type," he said. His goal is to build an international search engine with funeral homes across the world. "When a funeral home places the listing, they have the ability to not only place the individuals name, date of birth, date of death and geographic locations, they can list a photograph of the person." Right now Neal says he's getting a lot of help from the genealogical community.

Cremation urns and scattering gardens

Whatever the reason for having been neglected, once cremains have been claimed, there are many urns for ashes, including display cremation urns and urns for scattering ashes. One popular means of distributing cremation ashes is by holding a ceremony in a Scattering Garden.

Unclaimed ashes

Many reasons exist for the “secret” of unclaimed ashes. Grief got in the way and delayed retrieving the ashes. Life and daily tasks got in the way. The family of the deceased is estranged. Perhaps the cost of an urn or a burial is simply not affordable. If you have remains that are yet to be collected, speak with the funeral director or crematorium to make arrangements.

Leavitt, of Leavitt’s Mortuary mentioned above, states, “Cost should not be an issue because if someone comes to claim the ashes then they are not charged for the cremation.” 

*Image by IQRemix:

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.

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