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Unclaimed ashes weigh on funeral homes

Despite a 1992 state law allowing disposal, the homes hang onto unclaimed cremated remains for decades.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Richard Sorensen, funeral director of Gee & Sorensen, says he keeps about 15 containers of ashes in a cabinet at the St. Petersburg funeral home. He worries that if he scatters them, the families will show up to claim them.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The room is the size of a walk-in closet, stacked with dozens and dozens of boxes wrapped in brown paper, and a few stylish urns.

Funeral director John McQueen calls it the "storage vault," but it's become the last resting place for some 400 people. For now.

One man's ashes have been there since 1962, his cremated remains unclaimed by family members since McQueen's St. Petersburg funeral home opened.

"It's a common problem among funeral homes," says John McQueen of Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes. "A family member will have their mother cremated and they're not sure what to do with the ashes. So they ask us to hang on to them until they decide what to do. Twenty years later, we've never heard from them."

Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home isn't the only funeral home with a cache of unclaimed remains. Almost all funeral homes that have been around for a while know this problem.

"I think it's a universal problem through the years, not only here in Pinellas County but across the country," said Richard Sorensen, owner and funeral director of Gee & Sorensen Funeral Home and Cremation Services. He keeps about 15 containers of ashes in a cabinet at the St. Petersburg funeral home.

"I'm just going to keep them a while, because about the time I get rid of them, someone will come forward and say, 'listen here, back in 1970, you cremated my dad or some other relative and now I want them.' So I'm hesitant to do something."

In 1992, funeral homes in Florida united to get a law passed to allow them to dispose of unclaimed cremated remains within 120 days.

But many funeral directors still aren't sure whether they can dispose of remains of those who died before the law was passed.

Barbara Edwards, a Florida assistant attorney general and counsel for the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, says the statute does not address that question. It just says the remains can be scattered in an appropriate place, such as at sea, or in a cemetery scatter garden or pond, after 120 days.

"It's something that probably could be addressed again just so everybody's clear about that," said Michael Lewis, president of the Independent Funeral Directors of Florida and a Milton funeral home owner. "Because, really, a funeral home is not the proper place to hold them for a long period of time."

McQueen said Anderson-McQueen has not collected many cremated remains, known as cremains, in the past 10 years. It now informs family members about the law, and only once has it scattered unclaimed cremains at sea since the law passed.

The problem is with cremains collected before 1992.

"From a legal standpoint, nobody wants to be the one to test it," he said. "It's kind of a gray area."

McQueen thought he had figured out a way to deal with the cremains. He had spoken with a Georgia company, Eternal Reefs, which makes artificial reefs mixed with human cremains as a memorial to the dead. Eternal Reefs would have mixed the remains into the reef at a cost of $35,000 and placed it near Egmont Key, a 2-mile-long island in Tampa Bay.

But county officials in Hillsborough County, which holds the permit to create artificial reefs in that portion of Tampa Bay, rejected the plan. "(We) hold the permits for all of our artificial reefs and we do that so the citizens of Hillsborough County can go out and fish and enjoy the benefits of what the reefs provide," said Tom Ash, Hillsborough's artificial reef coordinator. "But to have a private entity making money off of that was the tricky part. It was a conflict that I didn't think was appropriate to get into."

For the same reasons, Pinellas officials also rejected the "reef balls," which can stand as high as 4 feet and weigh as much as 4,000 pounds.

Eternal Reefs has received permission from Sarasota, Manatee and Collier counties to drop the reef balls into the ocean, but McQueen felt relatives wouldn't travel that far to see their loved ones' remains.

That put him back at square one.

"For now, they will continue to stay in the storage vault the way they have for 25 years," he said.

That's where many funeral homes keep remains of those who died before the 1992 law. It's easier to do that than risk a lawsuit.

"We do have a few and we just hold on to them," said Stacy Adams, a funeral director at Adams & Jennings Funeral Home in Tampa. "It's just easier to hold on to them in case somebody comes back for them."

Other funeral homes place the remains in a mausoleum.

That's what Blount, Curry & Roel is working on right now. The funeral home, owned by Stewart Enterprises Inc., and several other funeral homes owned by the company are cataloging all their unclaimed cremated remains. They'll make one last effort to reach family members. Then they'll place the cremains in a mausoleum at Memorial Park Cemetery.

That way, they can retrieve the cremains if a family member appears.

"We're continually cremating people and storing cremated remains," said Mark Brandt, general manager of Blount, Curry & Roel Funeral Home at Memorial Park Cemetery. "And every time you open up the cabinet and see others in there, it's kind of in the back of our minds, this is obviously not what someone intended -- to be cremated and stuck on a shelf in a funeral home."

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