Funeral director Joe Wagner walked into the Station tavern in Jordan, Minn., with a purpose — to persuade the widowed bartender to retrieve her husband’s ashes from his funeral home, where they’d collected dust since the man’s heart attack seven years before.
When he confronted the woman, she began crying. But with her friends’ help, she finally agreed to take the cremated remains — cremains — for burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
One down, two dozen more to go. Wagner’s basement holds cremains forgotten, abandoned or stored by family members who can’t or won’t pick them up.
“They’ll do the cremation,” said Wagner, owner of Wagner Funeral Home. “Then they say … ‘We’re going to have a memorial service for Mom, but we haven’t decided on a place or time. Can you hold Mom’s ashes?’ Well, yeah. And 20 years go by.”
It’s a problem well known to funeral directors: After cremation, some cremains are never claimed and others languish for years, leaving funeral homes to store them indefinitely or dispose of them. Some leave the ashes because of family rifts and miscommunication; others can’t decide funeral plans or accept that a loved one is gone.
“It’s a weirdly prevalent phenomenon that I wouldn’t have expected to see if I hadn’t gotten involved with funeral service,” said Angela Woosley, a University of Minnesota mortuary science instructor.
Woosley said she instructs mortuary science students that to avoid ending up with cremains, the topic must be addressed early, during the first meeting with the family.
While some funeral directors say they’ve begun taking such measures to ensure that ashes aren’t abandoned, others say the problem persists.
The popularity of cremation has exploded in the last decade as a simpler, less costly alternative to burial in a casket. It’s especially prevalent in Minnesota, where 60 percent of people choose it. By 2030, Minnesota is poised to have the highest percentage of cremations in the country, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Across the state, that likely adds up to thousands of abandoned ashes.
All those unclaimed urns and boxes of ashes stack up.
By law, Minnesota funeral homes must send certified letters to families after 30 days if cremains aren’t recovered. If there’s no response after four months, they can dispose of the ashes “in any lawful way deemed appropriate.”
Some funeral homes keep them around in case someone comes for them. Others place them in a mausoleum, where they’re still accessible, or bury them.
People choose cremation not only because it’s cheaper, but also because it offers portability and flexibility. Families are more mobile today and may not have a family cemetery plot. In Minnesota, many retired people are snowbirds who live in a warm climate for part of the year, and flying a body “home” is expensive.
And with fewer people adhering to a formal religion, some of the ceremony that used to surround death is gone, said Dan Delmore, president of Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapels.
When there’s no ceremony, Delmore said, “Mom ends up on the credenza at our place.”
Experts say putting off a funeral can be unhealthy for families.
They need the closure it provides, Delmore said. “It’s much better for their own peace of mind and their own grief resolution,” he said.
The Cremation Society of Minnesota does 5,000 cremations a year, more than any other institution in Minnesota, said Kevin Waterston, the group’s vice president. The society has about 100 orphaned cremains, some left for weeks and others for decades.
Bill McReavy Jr. has 200 to 600 containers of deserted ashes at his 16 Washburn-McReavy funeral homes.
Directors of three other funeral homes estimated they have 20 to 30 each — some abandoned more than 60 years ago.
Because ashes, unlike bodies, don’t require prompt burial, families can delay services until they feel ready to deal with them. For some, that day never comes.
“It’s all about the pain of losing a loved one,” McReavy said.
He tells of a woman who died last winter, leaving behind a husband and children. The family, distraught, still can’t decide what to do with the cremains, so McReavy is holding them. He said the father agreed that the family needs counseling to move forward.
Paul Rosenblatt, a family social science professor at the U, studies family bereavement and said miscommunication contributes to the lack of follow-through.
”Families have communication issues at any time, but especially at a high-stress time,” Rosenblatt said.
There are many details to track when someone dies, and cremation offers even more disposition options than burial. Rosenblatt said a grieving person sometimes “doesn’t really have it together physically or cognitively to go get the ashes.”
While a loved one’s death is extremely traumatic for some people, for others, it’s the opposite, McReavy said.
“The sad part about it is, some people don’t like their own family.”