On a dreary day in Pierce County, a local chaplain knocks on the door of a quiet little home. He’s at the last known address of an elderly gentleman who passed away last year. He’s trying to track down the gentleman’s next of kin to let them know his cremated remains are still in storage at Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office.
It’s a sad sounding situation, but according to The News Tribune, it’s all too common. As a result of the growing number of remains that are accumulating at the ME’s office, they are exploring new options.
Locating Next of Kin for Unclaimed Ashes
The obvious first step for Amber Larkins, operations manager at the Medical Examiner’s Office, is to find relatives of the deceased. For most cases, this is fast and simple. In other cases, it becomes more involved and can required outside help. They consult records at hospitals, jails, estate information, and even military records. Larkins coordinates with local chaplains to reach out in person to residents with a known address but no other contact information.
The office also works with Tuell-McKee Funeral and Cremation Services of Tacoma, not only for cremation and transportation services, but help in locating next of kin. Thomas McKee reports a 60-80% success rate in finding next of kin, providing a great deal of help to the county.
While waiting for next of kin to come forward, the examiner’s office has to store the ashes of these deceased residents. In 2014, Pierce County had 23 unclaimed individuals. Six of these individuals were actually completely unidentified. In 2016, there are 37 individuals being stored.
These cases range all over. The longest-stored individual is Wesley Feely who died in 1998. The youngest is 33 year-old Jeremie Hamilton, while the oldest is 87 year-old Leo Hoffner.
Scattering Over Water
Mr. McKee says that remains which haven’t been claimed within the first year are usually never claimed. Obviously, the County does not have room to store a growing number of individuals indefinitely. More importantly, says medical examiner Dr. Thomas Clark, it’s undignified. He prefers to see their remains settled, rather than staying in storage.
Starting in 2014, the office began a procedure of removing any remains over a year old. As such, the Medical Examiner’s Office collaborated with the Sheriff’s Department to rectify the situation. In August of this year, the 37 sets of ashes were scattered over Puget Sound.