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Names are known, yet thousands of unclaimed remains stay in funeral homes

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 3:05 p.m. MDT

Funeral director Brandon Goulding holds a container of unclaimed cremains at the Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Home & Cremation Center in Murray on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY—The resting place for the cremated remains of Donald D. Forsythe and Clinton W. Thompson have been in a safe in the Jenkins-Soffe Mortuary Funeral Homes & Cremation Center for the past two decades.

Forsythe was born Sept. 25, 1917 and died Oct. 20, 1993. Thompson was born Sept. 15, 1910 and died in October, 1992. A third joins them — Patricia L. Rushton — but the date of birth and the cremation authorization are not listed on the outside of the brown plastic box, next to two reams of copy machine paper.

"That's why we still have them," Kurt Soffe, co-owner of the funeral home said. "Because we respect that this is a person. We're always hopeful that someone will come in the door."

There is no data base to determine the number of identified remains that are unclaimed in Utah. But a sampling of mortuaries shows there are hundreds, if not thousands, resting above copiers, on shelves, in lockers, in mausoleums, and in utility closets. They have names, sometimes birthdays, sometimes more that is known. But no one has come forward to claim them.

"As far as a problem, it’s just kind of a moral dilemma more than a space issue or a health issue or any other type of issue,” Tanner Carver, owner of Carver Mortuary, said.

“What do you do with them? This is somebody. Somebody knew this person and are they looking for them? You ask yourself those questions and what do you do with the ashes?”

If the next of kin has not come forward to claim the deceased, a funeral home “may dispose of the remains in any manner permitted by law, except scattering” after 60 days, according to a Funeral Services Licensing Act.

Soffe said they have made attempts to contact next of kin, and will keep the remains until they do.

"Because it's just that important to us," he said.

Carver said his mortuary didn't have a problem with cremated remains being unclaimed until they began a contract with the Salt Lake County Health Department in March to do indigent cremations.

Now the mortuary has 28 unclaimed remains.

Difficult to search for kin

Fred Salanti is the national executive director and president of the Missing in America Project, a group that travels across the nation going through unclaimed remains looking for veterans to give them a proper military burial.

He said they are researching the names of 16,000 cremated individuals now. Ten to 30 percent of those names will be veterans or their dependents. He said in one Indiana mortuary the group found 4,000 unclaimed remains. Another mortuary in Missouri had 2,250. Salanti expects to find millions of unclaimed cremated identified remains.

"We're only researching for 1,300 funeral homes out of 26,000 in the nation," Salanti said. "So we haven't even started to find cremated remains."

Part of the problem is a lack of a computer database to search for names. Short of calling each cemetery and funeral home individually and hoping to find an employee to research for the dead, there is no resource to find lost family members.

Salanti said because of privacy acts and legal requirements their group runs in to problems at every funeral home they visit, and they cannot make their database of unclaimed remains open to the public.

"I've had to get laws passed in 28 states and the national law for the funeral homes to feel protected enough to give me names," he said.

Uniting families

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