The puzzle of uncollected ashes

A man holds an ornate urn Image copyright Getty Images

Around the country many urns of loved ones lie uncollected at funeral directors. Why do people leave them?

They weigh about six pounds. They can be stored in an 18-inch plastic jar. Or perhaps an old pot. They are the ashes of a human being.

Cremation has steadily come to dominate funeral rites in many countries. But in the UK and elsewhere many urns - full of ashes - are going uncollected.

A funeral directors in Southampton has appealed to families saying 405 sets of ashes have been left unclaimed. B Matthews said some of the ashes had been in its care for more than 30 years - the oldest dating back to 1975.

Theirs is not an isolated case, says Dominic Maguire, a spokesman for the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD). It is common for funeral directors to feel a deep sense of duty. They may have lost touch with the family, but feel it would be wrong to throw away the ashes.

"It's this old-fashioned trust and integrity they have," he says. "And there may be an element of fear that someone will walk through the door and say you have my great grandfather's ashes." In some extreme cases funeral directors still have ashes from as far back as 1910 or 1920, he says.

Image caption The oldest ashes at the Southampton funeral home date back to 1975

Why do ashes go unclaimed? It may sometimes be as prosaic as forgetting or not caring about the deceased, but it may be something more emotionally stark.

Charles Cowling, joint author of the Good Funeral Guide, says families often can't bear the idea of collecting them. Burial means disposal - the body has gone, but with cremation there are ashes to be collected - they have to face their loved one again, albeit in a very different form.

"They don't know what to do with them. In their mind nan has gone so this dredges it all up again," he explains.

Even those who do pick them up may not know where to store them. They may end up in the boot of a car, the glove compartment or the kitchen drawer - semi-forgotten, he adds.

Melanie Cooper and her family left it 18 months before collecting her father's ashes from the funeral director. He had asked that his remains be scattered by the sea in Crete, but it took longer than anticipated for the family to arrange the trip.

"We left it with the funeral director. There was something a little bit morbid about having the ashes at home. Where would we have put him - in the garage or the study?" It was better not to know and the funeral director didn't pressure them.

Then when the trip happened, there was black humour. "Dad was 6ft 4in. The fact he is in a little urn in an overhead locker on an Easyjet flight was weird."

They scattered his ashes over some rocks, said a few words and had lunch. It was a defining moment for her. "I didn't move on properly until the scattering of the ashes," she said.

The problem applies in the US and Australia too.

'Forgotten souls' in North America

Image copyright AP
Image caption One of more than 3,000 unclaimed urns found at Oregon State Hospital in 2004
  • Estimated two million unclaimed urns across North America
  • In 2004, the ashes of 3,423 people were found at Oregon State Hospital for those with mental health issues. They were dubbed the "forgotten souls" with some dating back to 1880s
  • Pennsylvania funeral director Michael Neal started the free Forgotten Ashes website in February 2014, aiming to create a central database for unknown remains to be claimed
  • Missing in America (MIA) Project has also operated since 2007, aiming to "locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremains of American veterans"

In the UK, the individual applying to have the body cremated instructs either the crematorium or a funeral director to look after the ashes in the immediate aftermath.

And there is a legal problem at the moment, says Tim Morris, chief executive at the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management. Crematoriums make it clear to people that if the ashes are not collected within a certain timeframe - six months, say - that they have the right to dispose of them in the garden of remembrance.

Image copyright Nathalie Heyden
Image caption Some families wait a few years before scattering the ashes in a specific location abroad

But funeral directors for the most part do not have a similar policy. In the event of a funeral director losing touch with the family, the ashes can sit in storage for years. There is something akin to a duty of care for funeral directors that prevents them disposing of unclaimed ashes.

So they keep hold of them long after anyone is likely to come forward. Last year William H Painter, a funeral directors in Birmingham, issued an ultimatum to families of long-held ashes, saying it would dispose of urns that had been in its possession for decades.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The first official cremation in the UK was in 1885

What to do with unwanted cremated remains

Guidance from the NAFD suggests several options to scatter ashes - but only once funeral firms have exhausted "all reasonable steps", including advertising in local newspapers, and ownership is still unknown after a minimum of five years:

  • Return ashes to local crematorium for scattering, or else within the funeral home property
  • Purchase single plot in local cemetery or churchyard for interment
  • Scatter ashes at local beauty spot, with landowner's permission

The NAFD also advises maintaining comprehensive documentation so as to avoid future occurrences of untraceable ownership.

Source: National Association of Funeral Directors

Change is afoot. The NAFD recommends that funeral homes keep ashes for a minimum of five years. But this is not a legally binding document. They are hoping that legislation will clear up what Maguire calls a "grey area".

It would be helpful, for instance, if funeral directors could warn families in advance that if they don't hear from them for a certain period of time, the ashes will be disposed of in an appropriate place.

The shame is that not collecting the ashes can be a form of "denial", says Cooper. Having to take possession of them is a hard thing to do. But for her, scattering them was cathartic, and finally allowed her to say goodbye to her father.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.