Dozens of shoebox-size urns holding cremated remains sit idle in funeral homes across the state. The containers are tucked away in storage closets, locked and left to gather dust.
At Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor, more than 50 urns have yet to be claimed. At Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home in Ellsworth, there are about 40. Each has a tag identifying the deceased and the date of cremation. Some remains are more than four decades old.
State law requires funeral homes to keep cremated remains for four years. Beginning in September, that time frame will be reduced to just one year.
For undertakers like James Fernald at Brookings-Smith, though, it might as well be forever.
“Most can’t bring themselves to make such a finite decision about someone else’s loved one,” said Fernald, a fifth-generation funeral director.
Besides, he added, about once a year serendipity intervenes.
On Tuesday, the remains of Bangor native Joseph Poirier were interred at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta after a brief service that included other veterans and members of the Patriot Guard Riders.
Poirier’s remains had been held at Brookings-Smith since his death in 1998. Earlier this month, the Maine chapter of a program called Missing in America discovered that the man was a military veteran and began taking steps to ensure that he would have a proper burial.
Sally Belanger of the Maine Funeral Directors Association, which facilitates the Missing in America project in Maine, said ensuring Poirier’s burial was simply the right thing to do.
“Veterans obviously give a great deal to our country, but I think we would like to be able to do this for everyone,” she added, referring to the dozens or even hundreds of deceased whose remains go unclaimed.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.
Many remains stay unclaimed in perpetuity, the identities of the lost souls known only to people like Fernald. The problem isn’t limited to Maine, but it isn’t getting any easier, especially as cremation rates continue to rise.
“Some people don’t have family, some [survivors] haven’t settled financial obligations and are embarrassed to come back — it could be any number of things,” Belanger said. “Each case has its own reasons.”
Thirty years ago, only about 6 percent of Americans who died were cremated, according to statistics from the Cremation Association of North America. Now, the rate is one in three nationwide and about 50 percent in Maine.
Cremation has become a more accepted practice for a variety of reasons, such as cost, convenience and a less stringent adherence to traditions, religious or otherwise. As more and more people are cremated, the chances increase that remains will go unclaimed.
Fernald said the saddest cases are when the indigent or homeless die and no one can pay for cremation or burial.
“We try to help families no matter how much money they have,” he explained. “It used to be that families would work with us. Now, people aren’t even coming forward to do that. We used to perform an indigent cremation or funeral every couple months. Now, it’s every couple weeks.”
Thomas Fernald, vice president of Jordan-Fernald Funeral Homes in Hancock County, said sometimes it’s just easier for people to leave them behind.
“We try to touch base. We call. We send certified letters,” said Thomas Fernald, who is James Fernald’s uncle. “But they are still here. What are you going to do?
“It’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t want to take care of a loved one.”
Even if funeral homes like Brookings-Smith do decide to dispose of — for lack of a better phrase — unclaimed remains, they do so at their own expense. State law also says that remains cannot be scattered, but must either be buried or placed in a cemetery storage unit known as a columbarium.
Mark Riposta, owner of Direct Cremation of Maine in Belfast, handles cremations but not funeral arrangements and said unclaimed remains are not that big a problem in his business.
“We make strict arrangements for final dispositions, so in some ways we don’t have the leniency that you see at funeral homes,” he said.
Like others, though, Riposta said he keeps remains indefinitely primarily because of those storybook scenarios that pop up from time to time. Several years ago, a grandson came in asking about his grandmother’s remains and Riposta was surprised to find them there.
“When he showed up at my door, I was awful glad to say, ‘Yes, she’s here,’” said Riposta. “I couldn’t imagine saying no.”
James Fernald agreed that the infrequent feel-good stories make keeping the remains worthwhile.
Last year, a young man visiting Bangor ended up at Brookings-Smith frustrated after spending most of the day checking cemeteries within the city. The man wanted to pay respects to his grandfather, a Bangor resident who died 17 years ago, but couldn’t find the man’s gravesite.
“He knew we were the biggest funeral home in the area and figured we had a role in handling his grandfather’s arrangements,” recalled Fernald, declining to identify the man.
It turns out he was right. The deceased was cremated and his remains kept at Brookings-Smith. That’s where they sat, for 17 long years, until the grandson arrived.
“He was tickled to get them and to do a proper burial,” Fernald said of the young man.
This year’s story was Poirier.
According to his obituary which ran in the Bangor Daily News in March 1998, the man served in the U.S. Navy from 1948 to 1950. He also was employed as a custodian at Bangor High School for many years. The obituary stated that Poirier had a sister and brother but no wife or children.
Fernald recalled that Poirier’s sister paid for the cremation but did not want her brother’s remains. She gave the funeral home permission to do with them what it wished. Brookings-Smith decided to put them on a shelf alongside dozens of others.
It wasn’t until this year that Missing in America found Poirier and ensured a proper burial.
“But, I’m sure there are others out there,” James Ferland said.
While veterans like Poirier have programs like Missing in America, others have nothing, only that glimmer of hope that someone might remember, or care, to solidify their final resting place.
James Fernald said, if nothing else, he hoped stories like Poirier’s might refresh memories or encourage people to make amends with their own forgotten loved ones.
Sometimes, he lamented, “There just isn’t anybody.”