What Happens To Cremated Remains?


Without a Trace

Not to coin a phrase persé or borrow the title of the popular TV program from America; have you ever wondered, and I know the answer is ’No,’ where do ‘they’ go?

Where do who or what go? Ashes! Cremated remains or, their ‘owners.’

As a practising funeral director, rarely do I see any narrative regarding this subject but, it is a ‘real’ problem.

Can you imagine the sheer amount of cremated remains that could be left at a crematorium during the course of one year, three years, five of even ten years? It simply doesn’t bear thinking about so, what happens?

Generally speaking, if you make any one of us pay for a service, you will gain our attention.
Crematoria ‘shift’ the responsibility to funeral directors and, naturally so. It is us that dealt with the family or the executors and we have first-hand knowledge and contact details for all our customers – right? Right.

So, what do you imagine can go wrong? What is, ‘wrong’ exactly? Your perception is very different to mine but, the answers are truly unlimited so I will illustrate some of my personal experiences, views or, imaginations.

When we arrange a cremation, we ask for a signed authority for the Disposal of the Cremated Remains. Once ‘you’ authorise ‘us’ to collect them on ‘your’ behalf from the crematorium, nothing, save another authorisation from you, the family or executor, can change that procedure and we, duly collect them.

Due to some of the difficulties in the past (more about that later), we make very accurate records and, we advise you that we will keep ‘ashes’ in our ‘Place’ or ‘Chapel of Rest’ for a set period of time. Beyond that, we will inform you and charge you a monthly fee for their safe storage. This is after all, how it worked for the crematoria, so it should work for us funeral directors/undertakers? No, I’m afraid not.

We, as professionals have to balance tender emotions with practicalities, not only yours but also our own.
Once the funeral service has passed, there are so many things to attend to and life around you carries on regardless despite your feelings and grief situation so, let me ask a question, “Can you remember what exactly, amongst all those other unfamiliar things you told us, what exactly we said about the cremated remains?”

Often the answer is very doubtful at best but we too are busy people and cannot remember every detail about every family we deal with.

The idea of writing to every ‘owner’/inheritor of cremated remains is admirable but so often, impractical. That we further decide to remind you and offend you by charging a fee for storage is something we simply do not aspire to.
Being human too, the passage of time grows and now, trouble is brewing.

In the situation of further survivor deaths, people moving away - often to be with or close to, families, the disposal or sale of houses, keeping track of clients is difficult to say the least, apart from the time consumption element. I could add that there are no charges involved pursuing clients and sometimes, when solicitors or banks are involved with Estates, forwarding addresses get lost, staff move to other branches, retire or pass away themselves.
Add to this, The Data Protection Act and you can soon and easily see that, this task moves to the realms of impossibility.

As funeral directors, we have obligations. In truth, not so much a legal obligation as a moral obligation.
At what point do we cease to bother or input effort for no results? What options are we therefore able to offer or actions perform?
What can ‘we’ do to exercise ‘due diligence’ in the matter?

Practically speaking, we are under little justification to do anything from anyone BUT, our practice is to write to our clients, after the funeral date but not too far into the future, on a regular basis, three times to the last address given to us.

As the fee for cremation in England and Wales includes the ‘Scattering of Ashes’ in the Garden of Remembrance of the crematorium, once we, the funeral director, indemnify the Crematorium against further action, we are able to return the ashes and request that service.

As a consideration, we can announce publicly our intention and state a date for the occurrence but realistically, with the decline of newspaper purchases throughout the country, there is little point. That relatives may not live locally, is common so we are left with two options, our website and social media but since there is no compunction for either, to engage IT technicians at additional costs is another impracticality.

Generally, members of the public are horrified at this scenario – ‘forgotten Ashes’ - if made aware. Simply put, people forget and are not in a totally balanced frame-of-mind at the time of loss so really, quite forgiveable?
No doubt, opinions will differ but as people in a position of responsibility, we funeral directors sometimes feel that we just can’t ‘win!’

As a footnote, I will add that, on rare occasions, some funeral accounts are not paid. Often, we still hold the cremated remains in our Chapel of Rest.
One such occurrence after much effort and research by us, resulted in the discovery that the relative had returned to South Africa.
Despite our follow-ups and attempts to contact the relative, the situation remained unresolved for some years.

With reference to ‘our past experience’ mentioned above, the public generally don’t take into account family dynamics? Experience in our business shows that siblings sometimes have differences that manifest themselves at the time of the funeral - for example, we have known one sibling authorise a funeral and another to collect the ashes to the dismay of the organiser. Such events have led the industry to acknowledge the 'unlikely,' keep accurate records and ensure the authority of the claimant!

For information about the transportation or repatriation of Cremated Remains nationally or internationally, see our ‘Articles’ on this website.

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