In her nightstand, Leslie Grisanti has a spent shell casing packed with her father's ashes. It's a keepsake from the military gun salute that honored the former Marine at his memorial service.
She also has a heart-shaped box with some of "Papa's" ashes in her cabin at the family property in northwestern Minnesota. Each of her five siblings also has such parcels.
But most of Ames Grisanti's cremated remains were scattered in the lake that he loved.
"We did a ceremony six months after he died," recalled Grisanti, 54, of Minneapolis. "We made his favorite meal, spicy sausages and peppers. Then we all took Dixie cups with his ashes and walked into the water together and spread them around."
Grisanti believes her father would approve of the sendoff. He had mentioned that he wanted to be cremated, but when he suffered a fatal heart attack at a casino in Las Vegas, his family had to draw their own conclusions about what to do.
"We're a big Italian family and don't always agree but this felt right to everyone," she said. "I do wish he would have been specific."
Some 70% of Minnesotans now choose cremation, but funeral directors say not enough of them are stating what they want for what's formally known as the "final disposition" of their cremated remains.
"Cremation is what we do with your earthly dwelling. But that doesn't mean, poof, you're gone," said Dan McGraw, president of Gill Brothers, a Twin Cities funeral and cremation service. "People say they want to be cremated and they think that's the end. It's not."
Ideally, every person spells out what they want for their final rites and rituals in a written directive, naming a personal agent authorized to carry out their wishes.
But the difficulty of such discussions means they never happen in many families, so there can be confusion and even drama as survivors debate what to do with the 10 to 12 pounds of cremains that most bodies reduce to.
"So often there's no plan and so the ashes become someone's burden and responsibility. In our transient society, people die here but their relatives all live somewhere else and say they'll pick them up the next time they're in town," said McGraw. "If they remember."
McGraw and other funeral directors are too often left with what they call abandoned ashes — cremated remains that are left sitting on their storage shelves.
"Legally, after 60 days we can send a certified letter and if no one picks them up, we can scatter the ashes in a dignified way," he said. "But that's just wrong and a PR nightmare. We would never do that."
When ashes are retrieved, they can create dilemmas for family members who inherit them without specific directions about how to proceed.
"What happens down the road, when someone winds up with ashes of a person they never knew? Years later, great-grandchildren will find urns in storage lockers and say, what do we do with this?" he said.
McGraw has a warning for family members who will travel with a loved one's cremated remains, taking them to where they will be scattered or buried. If they are flying and don't check the ashes in their suitcase, they may get a shock as they pass through security.
"If they're in a wooden or cardboard box in their carry-on, they can be scanned but not if they're in a sealed metal urn and most cremation urns are brass," McGraw said. "We hear stories about people dumping ashes into a plastic bag in airport bathrooms after TSA stops them."
Another move made by family members who inherit ashes without a directive is to make what funeral directors call a midnight cemetery run. This happens when the deceased does not have a designated burial plot, but other family members did. Survivors sneak cremated remains into the family plot after hours and scatter them over the graves of their parents and grandparents.
"Cremated remains are mostly bone fragment made of sodium and calcium. It kills the grass before it neutralizes," McGraw said. "Cemeteries can tell someone did this but there's not much they can do about it after the fact."
Since the high temperatures used in cremation render ashes harmless, there's no public health risk associated with owning or handling them.
In Minnesota, law allows family members to spread cremated remains on private land that they own; there are no regulations that forbid scattering ashes on public property, including parks and lakes.
Some people choose what's known as permanent memorialization of their ashes. Cemeteries provide options for final resting places that loved ones can visit, including ground burial, urn vaults, freestanding mausoleums or above-ground columbaria. Typically these options come with some sort of marker or monument with names, dates, an epitaph or religious symbols.
"Many cemeteries are converting or repurposing spaces that once held caskets to hold urns. Often they're placed behind a glass front and inside you'll see memorabilia or photographs, items that hold significance," said Prof. Michael LuBrant, director of the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota.
"More people are looking to be remembered more for their unique personality than in the past. Funeral directors are seeing requests for new methods of memorialization that are different and meaningful."
Leslie Grisanti plans to hold onto most of her share of her father's ashes, but imagines eventually taking some to his beloved Las Vegas and to his parents' burial plot in a Wisconsin cemetery.
"I love that there's a little bit left to sprinkle here and there," she said.
The experience has gotten Grisanti thinking about what will happen to her own earthly remains.
"My husband and I have talked about this but we haven't written it down. We should probably do that," she said. "I have a friend whose dad's ashes are still in the garage because they're confused about what to do. We don't want that to happen."