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? —Kurt Soffe
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.
Jenet Mills, office manager for Garner Funeral Home & Salt Lake Mausoleum, said over the lifetime of the mausoleum there have been more than 100 named, but unclaimed remains.
Mills said they set aside a crypt in their mausoleum where the unclaimed urns are stored. In the 15 years she's worked at the funeral home Mills said she has "only ever had maybe two that have come" looking for the remains.
She said the funeral home keeps the unclaimed remains for one year in a utility closet before moving them to a holding crypt. The funeral home has a contract with the Utah State Prison and Mills said most of the remains they have are because family of the prisoners want nothing to do with them, or they have no family.
"The contract with the prison is that after a year we can dispose of the remains but we don't feel right about doing that so we just stick them in our holding crypt," she said.
Greg Newlon, owner of Independent Professional Service, said they keep five unclaimed remains at a time. If he gets a sixth urn he tries to contact the family of the oldest one left at his business. He said the family usually gives him further instructions, but on two occasions he hasn't been able to contact family and proceeded to scatter the ashes.
Brent Russon, owner of Russon Brothers Mortuary, said the cremated remains of two individuals that are five or six years old sit in his mortuary that the family has chosen not to pick up.
"We'll hold onto them as long as we can," Russon said.
Michael O'Donnell, owner of Neil O'Donnell and Sons Mortuary, said there are at most 20 unclaimed remains at his mortuary, despite the 60-day disclaimer in the cremation authorization paperwork.
"We kind of wait and try to double-check with families as best we can," he said.
Every couple of years O'Donnell said he will scatter the ashes in a beautiful forest.
"The mortuary is not a proper place of disposition," he said.
Mike Leavitt, owner of Leavitt's Mortuary, said there are almost 200 unclaimed cremated remains at his mortuary. He said they have done cremations since 1934 and in some cases the people are indigents, other times the family never comes back to claim them.
"We have two crypts up in our mausoleum that we've placed those unclaimed remains in," he said. "We've had people come back 15 years after (we put them in the crypt)."
Brian Bennion, deputy director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the county works with Carvers Mortuary on indigent cremations. He said unclaimed remains are something the health department needs to look into.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” he said. “We’re going to have some discussion about it.”
Bennion said families or next of kin will claim about 90 percent of the remains, but occasionally they can’t find next of kin.
“So there’s maybe 20 per year that are just sitting there,” he said. “(Funeral homes have) just kept them, but they would like to work out a long-term situation. I think it’s something we need to talk about and explore.”