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What Happens To Abandoned Or Unclaimed Ashes?

by | Jul 19, 2017 | Funeral Profession

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Funeral homes across the country are facing a growing problem. Their storage rooms are filling up with unclaimed urns.

The Cremation Association of North America (CANA) estimates that there are more than 2 million uncollected urns in funeral homes across North America. Experts worry that as cremation rates rise, the number of unclaimed urns will rise along with it.

Why So Many Unclaimed Remains?

It’s hard to say for sure why so many cremated remains go unclaimed each year. Experts believe there are several factors in play.

Sometimes family members can’t decide what to do with the ashes or aren’t aware of their options. They believe cremation is the final disposition. Many families don’t realize they can choose to scatter the ashes, bury them in a cemetery or columbarium, or keep them at home. Another reason is that some families just assume the funeral home will take care of it. In other cases, the deceased has no known relatives or became estranged with their family.

Laws About Abandoned Ashes

The disposition of human remains is typically the right of the next of kin or a spouse. This can be hard for funeral directors who want to give the departed a respectful send-off. Funeral homes spend years of exhaustive efforts trying to contact or search for relatives. After that, many funeral homes go on to keep unclaimed ashes for several years, even decades.

The laws about what to do with abandoned cremated remains can be tricky to navigate. And they also vary from state to state. According to a Los Angeles Times report, “A majority of states have laws setting minimum waiting periods for funeral homes to store unclaimed cremated remains, ranging from 60 days to four years. About a dozen states have no laws or regulations.”

But in the past few years, new laws are being considered to help funeral directors with unclaimed remains. Here you can find an overview of the laws regarding unclaimed ashes in each state.

Resources for Funeral Directors

  • Contact the Missing In America Project. The Missing In America Project helps to “locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans through the joint efforts of private, state and federal organizations. [And] to provide honor and respect to those who have served this country by securing a final resting place for these forgotten heroes.” To date, the project has visited more than 2,000 funeral homes. And they have helped identify and inter the remains of more than 3,000 veterans.
  • List your unclaimed remains on Forgotten Ashes. Forgotten Ashes is an online database that helps match unclaimed ashes with surviving relatives. According to the website, the online database can be used by any “funeral home, cremation provider or municipal entity can register (completely free of charge) to list their own inventory of forgotten ashes, which will be available 24 hours a day, all year long, until they wish to remove them or until they have been claimed.”
  • If your funeral home resides in a state that allows you to scatter the abandoned ashes after getting the family’s permission, you can try searching on Eternity Gardens. Eternity Gardens provides an online listing of cremation gardens throughout North America. From here, you can find a meaningful place to scatter the ashes of the deceased.


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