Losing a loved one — again. Abandoned remains still a problem for funeral homes

Posted Feb. 28, 2014, at 4:22 p.m.
Last modified March 01, 2014, at 7:38 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Nearly five years ago, a local man died and after his memorial his remains were cremated at his family’s request. The bill for the cremation was paid and the man’s two adult sons then went their separate ways.

Last year, one of the brothers returned to Maine to visit his sibling and wanted to go to their father’s grave.

“His brother then realized they had never picked up their dad,” James Fernald, a fifth-generation funeral director who works at Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor, said recently. “When he realized we had him, he was really excited but he was also a little embarrassed.”

This is the kind of story Maine funeral directors know well. There are an unknown number of unclaimed remains left on the shelves of funeral homes scattered around Maine, and Brookings-Smith, with its decades-long history in Bangor, is one with a lengthy list. There are 82 urns in storage, with the oldest dating back to 1951, Fernald said.

Changes in state and federal laws have significantly reduced such abandonments even as cremations continue to rise in the state and the nation.

No database of identified but unclaimed remains exists in Maine, but with more than 140 funeral homes it’s likely there are hundreds around the state, according to industry members.

Some of the cremation remains belong to the indigent, but many others are left at the funeral homes by families.

“It’s been a problem ongoing in the funeral home business for as long as I’ve been doing this — 35 years,” Christopher Crawford, owner of Conroy-Tully Crawford Funeral Home and Cremation Services of Portland, said recently. “You always have to keep reminding people to come and get them.

“It used to be much simpler when we were taking a casket to the cemetery,” he said. “[With cremation], it doesn’t seem to have the necessity of when you have a casket with a body. We try to treat them with equal respect, so it seems to be a misnomer that they’re left.”

The Portland funeral home has eight urns in storage awaiting pickup, and as the former leader of the Maine Funeral Director’s Association, Crawford said he knows of numerous funeral homes in the state with dozens upon dozens of forgotten or unclaimed urns.

Unclaimed cremated remains were an all too common occurrence before 2003, when state rules regarding them and cremation were established, allowing for disposal and regulations to document everything, said Bob Barnes, vice president of Jones, Rich & Hutchins Funeral Home in Portland.

“We can hold onto them for one year, then we have to send a letter to the responsible party to let them know the time is short,” he said Friday. “After that, the funeral home has the discretion [to keep or inter the remains].”

Since the Maine rules were created, the number of people choosing cremation has steadily grown, and now “60 to 65 percent of our dead are being cremated,” Fernald said.

Everything is documented, checked and double-checked and each body that comes into the funeral home has an extensive paper trail that includes surviving family members and friends. It’s very rare that no family or friends are listed, but there are exceptions, Fernald said.

State and federal laws only require funeral homes to hold onto unclaimed remains for a year and some funeral homes in Maine have taken advantage of the law, usually partnering with communities for interment, said Sally Belanger, Maine Funeral Directors Association executive director.

Whoever is in possession of the unclaimed body or remains, either the medical examiner or funeral home, contacts the person’s hometown and the community’s general assistance program to pay for a burial, according to Mark Belserene, spokesman for the medical examiner’s office.

The practice at Jones, Rich & Hutchins and Brookings-Smith is to wait for families to return for the remains.

“It happens every year,” Fernald said.

“We keep everybody in a safe place and make sure we do our due diligence,” Barnes said. “We do that because you never know who is going to come to the funeral home. It’s someone’s loved one and we have to make sure we’re taking care of that person.”

Veterans and new rules

There are a number of reasons why the urns are unclaimed. Some deceased just don’t have surviving families, or have families who think the remains were cared for by another family member. Some people end up forgetting or deciding not to pick up them up as part of their grieving process, and, for a small number, finances play a role, Fernald said.

“There have been zero [new] unclaimed remains since the early 2000s because we’re much more diligent,” Fernald said.

Unclaimed remains are becoming a major problem in big cities out of state, and have even led to national news, which happened in Seabrook, N.H., in February 2005, where a woman’s decomposing body was found in a broken freezer along with dozens of unlabeled urns and records of two-body cremations.

The subsequent class action lawsuit led state leaders to realize Maine didn’t have any rules regarding cremation, Fernald said. Regulations for establishing and operating crematories were created in 2009 under the state’s Department of Health and Human Services’ Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the state was creating rules governing cremation, the Maine chapter of the Missing in America Project — whose only goal is to give forgotten veterans a proper burial — found the cardboard urn of Navy veteran and Bangor native Joseph Poirier sitting on a shelf at Brookings-Smith, where it had been for 11 years.

Poirier’s sister paid for the cremation but did not want her brother’s remains. Thanks to the Missing in America Project, they were placed in a bronze urn engraved with his name and interred at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta.

“Veterans and other people become the family,” Belanger, facilitator of the state’s Missing in America Project, said of the memorials for the forgotten veterans. “We’ve had one every year since we started. In 2009, Poirier was our first.”

Maine passed the Act To Allow the Unclaimed Remains of a Veteran To Have Proper Burial in 2011 and the federal government passed legislation in 2013 directing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to partner with funeral directors and medical examiners to ensure unclaimed veterans received dignified burials, with Uncle Sam picking up the bill for caskets and urns.

All of the unclaimed veterans found in Maine so far have been interred, “with their brothers-in-arms at the state’s veterans cemetery in Augusta,” Fernald said.

Changing with the times

The number of people cremated each year is steadily growing as people move away from traditional religious ceremonies. The lower cost is also a driving factor.

“There are all kinds of boundaries with traditional funerals,” Fernald said. “The boundaries around cremation are totally different, there are almost none. With cremation you don’t need to have a burial place — you can scatter, you can bury, you can scatter some and bury some, you can make it into jewelry, you can shoot it into space, you can ship it off to France and have it scattered on the beaches of Normandy, if you’re a World War II vet.”

People can still have a viewing and a memorial service with cremation, or any other variation, Fernald said.

Cremations in Maine are rising. There were 7,551 cremations in 2010, and 9,452 in 2013, an increase of more than 1,900 in just two years, according to James A. Jacobsen, project manager of the state’s Division of Environmental Health’s Subsurface Wastewater Unit, which tracks cremation rates in Maine to keep an eye on pollutants.

With a rate above 65 percent, Maine is far ahead of the curve when it comes to cremation numbers compared to the nation, where an estimated 43.5 percent are cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Funeral homes in the state are changing with the times, including Brookings-Smith, which opened the nonprofit Pine Grove Crematorium and Remembrance Center in 2007 on outer Hammond Street as a way to provide another service to families. Crawford said he added cremation services to his funeral homes’ business name years ago even though he contracts out for the service.

Unlike other crematories in the state, and even in Bangor, the operators of Pine Grove had the families in mind when they designed the place, which looks like a cottage and features a “witnessing room” for families who want to watch the final step.

Urns piled up for years, “I think because many of the funeral directors were naive and thought families would come back [for them],” Crawford said.

Nowadays, “we work very diligently to have it not happen at all but the reality is it happens,” he said.

The reason the unclaimed remains are kept so long by some funeral homes is because there is nothing more rewarding that reconnecting loved ones with their lost family members, Fernald and Barnes said.

“We’ve had people show up 10 to 15 years later,” Fernald said.