Archive for Friday, June 16, 2006

Boxes hold ashes, memories

Mortuary a final resting place for ‘cremains’

June 16, 2006


In the basement of Warren-McElwain Mortuary is a secluded room.

The sign outside reads: "Cremation Storage Area: Visitation Hours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m."

Inside are several dozen containers. Some are cardboard boxes, some are brass tins, a few are elaborate urns. But they all contain the same thing: the ashes of someone's dearly departed.

These "cremains," as funeral directors call them, can be found in almost any funeral home, usually tucked out of sight in a spare closet or cupboard.

But the collection at Warren-McElwain, 120 W. 13th St., requires an entire room. Inside, there are 40 sets of cremains, including some dating to the 1930s.

The reasons they haven't been picked up vary, according to funeral director Larry McElwain. A few have been forgotten, but most are being stored for a later date. Many await the death of a spouse so both sets of ashes can be scattered or buried together.

About one in three people who dies in Lawrence is cremated. The state average is one in four, according to the Cremation Association of North America. McElwain attributes cremation's greater acceptance in Lawrence to the open-mindedness of its residents. Most university towns, he said, have a higher rate of cremation than surrounding areas.

Cynthia Mann, funeral director and embalmer at Warren McElwain Mortuary, 120 W. 13th St., pulls a box of unclaimed cremated remains at the mortuary, which stores about 40 unclaimed boxes. "These people need to be put to rest just as well as anyone else," Mann says.

Cynthia Mann, funeral director and embalmer at Warren McElwain Mortuary, 120 W. 13th St., pulls a box of unclaimed cremated remains at the mortuary, which stores about 40 unclaimed boxes. "These people need to be put to rest just as well as anyone else," Mann says.

Mack Smith, executive secretary of the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts, said cremation rates in the Midwest continue to grow.

"Things come to Kansas, but by the time they come here - not just funerals, but everything - it's yesterday's news on the East or West Coast," Smith said. "Well, cremation's here in Kansas, big-time, compared to what it has been in the past."

But with that popularity comes a little-known byproduct: remains that go unclaimed.

"With the cremation rate going up : it doesn't take too long to accumulate quite a few of them if people don't come pick them up," Smith said.

Scatter or keep

According to Kansas law, funeral homes may dispose of unclaimed cremains after 90 days. At least 30 days before disposal, the funeral director is required to contact the closest relative's last known address.

If the relative doesn't reply, funeral homes have the right to dispose of the cremains. Usually, they're buried in a mass cemetery plot or scattered.

According to the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts, it is illegal to scatter ashes in federal parks or waterways. Scattering them on private property is legal, but only with the owner's permission.

McElwain said he knows he could dispose of the cremains, but he'd rather hold onto them. "We've chosen to be the repository, if necessary," McElwain said. "If that gives somebody peace of mind, if that gives somebody a good feeling, hey, it's fine with me. We just continue to increase our space and deal with it."

McElwain said about 40 percent of families that come to Warren-McElwain choose cremation over traditional burial. Though the mortuary doesn't have a crematory of its own, it uses one at Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home, 601 Ind.

The Rumsey-Yost crematory, which was installed in 1998, is the only crematory in Douglas County.

But Rumsey-Yost doesn't store those that are unclaimed. Not for long, anyway.

Mack Smith, executive secretary of the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts, on why cremation may be more popular in Lawrence


Bart Yost, a funeral director there, said cremains are almost always picked up by the family. On the rare occasion they go unclaimed for 90 days, the funeral home follows Kansas law and buries them in a cemetery plot.

Yost said families who didn't claim the cremains right away probably preferred that the funeral home handle them.

"I don't think they forgot," he said. "They don't want to deal with it. Out of sight, out of mind : which isn't necessarily the most healthy way to deal with it, but some people do."

For the families

Deanna Stephens, a funeral home director at Cedar Crest Memorial Chapel in De Soto, has about 12 sets of cremains stored in a closet at the mortuary that have accumulated during the past 10 years.

What usually happens to cremains after the funeral?

  • 40.7 percent are delivered to the cemetery.
  • 35.8 percent are taken home by survivors.
  • 17.8 percent are scattered over land or water.
  • 5.7 percent are not picked up.
  • Of the cremains that aren't picked up:
  • 45.6 percent are placed in storage on the funeral home premises.
  • 32.4 percent are disposed of in a proper and legal way.
  • 22 percent are placed in a permanent vault.

Source: Cremation Association of North America

Stephens said some people just didn't know what to do with cremains.

"I even had a family come in and get them, sprinkle (some of) them out on a golf course and bring (the rest) back because they really didn't know what to do with them," she said. "They sprinkled very few of them."

She said about 50 percent of families in De Soto choose cremation over traditional burial, mostly because it's less expensive.

Some of the cremains at Warren-McElwain Mortuary get regular visitors. One family arrives each holiday season for a short service with their deceased loved one, then returns the set of cremains to its shelf until the next visit.

McElwain said all the cremains, no matter how old, have not been forgotten, just stored away in a safe place.

"I don't want people to feel like I'm in a hurry," McElwain said. "They're not in the way, they're not a nuisance. In a way, I'm glad they feel comfortable about it."


Mike Birch 12 years ago

Sounds like an article written with the intention of

promoting cremation. You would never sell me on it

though. I plan on having the proper burial that

someone of my stature should have.


Linda Endicott 12 years ago

I'm leaning more toward cremation. Much cheaper, for one thing.

And I don't want to be buried. I'm afraid of the dark.

geekin_topekan 12 years ago

One down note to cremation is that some crematories are contracted with hospitals to cremate parts of people. Amputated limbs and thingys left over from surgery that they couldn't figure out where it went. Rather than fire up the incinerator and waste all that precious time,gas and effort it is easier and cheaper to keep the pieces on ice and through them in with the next paying customer. My source on this was a former mortuary owner who lost his license after being caught with parts.I had to ask him what the scenerio was and he said that it is a common and illegal practice that,according to him,happens all the time.

lunacydetector 12 years ago

the funeral industry as a whole seems like quite the racket. unless you were to prepay for a funeral, who shops around for the best price when a loved one dies, especially when the mortuary already has the remains on ice? surely you can't legally transport a dead body yourself to the less expensive funeral home.

i wonder if some of these remains were left behind because some families couldn't afford to pay for the cremation and funeral?

lunacydetector 12 years ago

...and who would want to transport the dead body of a loved one anyway?

imagold 12 years ago

Blessings on the subjects of this story, both the funeral home employees and the departed. Holding these ashes for an indefinite period of time shows a great deal of compassion. Until last year, I'd never known anyone that was cremated, nor had I had many dealings with funeral home staff. This particular relative was cremated on the west coast. He was treated with just as much respect as one being buried. The ashes are still with the spouse awaiting "proper" burial. I'm beginning to change my mind and think cremation is best, as does my husband. Side note: the funeral home out west provided their services at no charge due to financial constraints of the surviving spouse. I'm still saying prayers of thanks for those wonderful, caring people.

Katie Van Blaricum 12 years ago

You're afraid of the dark but not of fire??

Kathleen Christian 12 years ago

I want to be recycled - thrown into the Ocean for fish food. Then recycled through their body dumped onto the floor of the Ocean formented into nutrients used to nurish another wonderful sea creature and so on..... this way I will truly live forever and be of some use to this planet and this way give back what I have used up during my lifetime.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years ago

I've told my wife, quite seriously, that I want to be disposed of in some useful manner. She doesn't like it when I talk about becoming "Alpo". One thing is for sure, I ain't taking up a plot of dirt for all eternity. What's the point? Furthermore, why do we have all these laws about vaults and such? If I was buried, I'd want to ROT AWAY, not sit there like a piece of preservative-laden truck-stop beef jerky for ever and ever. To me, that's morbid. Rotting is natural, so why try to circumvent the natural process?

How does the whole "burial at sea" thing work? Do they entomb you in polyurethane or something silly like that, or do they actually let the fishies dine on you? It would be cool to get some info on that.

craigers 12 years ago

Conservativeman, that's just gross man. I will never look at restaurant pepper shakers the same.

Eagle_aye 12 years ago

Too much information Marion! ACK!!

Cait McKnelly 12 years ago

Both of my parents were cremated in a very sweet way. My dad died first in '94. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in a gallon size antique mason jar with a zinc lid. He was buried in the ground between his parents graves. My mother died two years later. On her instructions, she was cremated and the jar was dug up and her ashes placed it. We shook the jar to mix her and my dads ashes, then we reburied the jar. There was enough room to accomadate two small headstones over the jar. My dads was provided by the VA and was the standard little veteran headstone. My moms is a small pink marble rectangle. They are where they both wanted to be, together forever.

mommy3 12 years ago

Cait48, I think that is so neat. I am sorry for your loss. My Daddy passed away on Dec. 5 2004 and to this day I miss him more than ever! I have his ashes sitting on a decorated shelf. He wanted to be placed in the ocean, but since I can't afford that at the moment, he will remain with me. I know some people get a little freaked out when they see those things, but it gives me a chance to talk about my Daddy. I think cremation allows more freedom to do things the way you want, and allows those left behind a chance to cope. Burials are done within days of the death, and then it's over. That would have added to my pain. God bless those workers at the funeral home, anymore it's hard to find people who respect things like that.

yellowhouse 12 years ago

THE ANGEL OF DEATH---by carrie neighbors

There is an Angel calling from high above

His song is pure and full of love

He calls each one to an unknown land

Then guides each with his gentle hand

He comes when every shadow falls

There is no escaping when he calls

His wings are open in full flight

He shall lead the way into the light

He knows which soul is glory bound

For it's through him paradise is found

Though the body on earth may stay

It is with this Angel our soul flies away

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