Why Don't Families Pick up Cremated Remains?

Five reasons contributing to the growing problem of unclaimed cremated remains

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It might seem unthinkable but, every year, thousands of cremated human remains go unclaimed by surviving family members, friends and loved ones. According to an article published in the Chicago Tribune in 2010, an estimated 1% of all cremation cases in the United States result in unclaimed cremated remains. To put that into perspective, the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) projected that 998,500 U.S. deaths in 2010 would involve cremation.

Assuming that the percentage of cremated remains that go unclaimed annually is accurate, this means that nearly 10,000 sets of cremated human remains, whether housed in urns or temporary cremation containers, were never picked up by families, friends or loved ones in 2010 alone. (Incidentally, CANA historically underestimates its annual projections of cremations in the United States, so the actual figure is probably greater.)

And this problem is not unique to the United States. In Australia, three cemeteries in the Perth metropolitan area alone presently store roughly 300 sets of "ashes" that families never claimed. And in the United Kingdom, where some 73.15% of deaths in 2010 involved cremation (versus 40.62% in the U.S. that same year), funeral providers have dealt with the problem of families failing to pick up cremated remains for centuries, with some firms still holding cremated remains dating back to the late 1800s.

5 Reasons Families Don't Pick up Cremated Remains
There are many reasons that contribute to the growing problem of unclaimed cremated remains, but perhaps chief among them is economic. Unless a funeral or burial service is prepaid, some families simply cannot afford to pay the bill, or decide they do not wish to pay for some reason.

Despite repeated efforts by funeral, burial and cremation providers to contact these families, many arrangements end up in default and the only option is to hire a collection agency. Because of the sensitive nature of caring for the deceased and concerns about negative perceptions, many providers are loathe to resort to this measure so the cremated remains go unclaimed.

Internal family strife is another reason that families do not pick up cremated remains. Sometimes the next-of-kin felt estranged from the deceased due to unaddressed issues earlier in life that create indifference toward the final disposition of his or her relative's cremated remains after death. In other cases, families argue about who should receive the remains or, more often, what should be done with them because people generally fail to make their final wishes known, causing survivors to squabble about what "Mom" or "Dad" would have wanted. Finally, and sadly, some people die without a survivor who cares enough to accept the responsibility of receiving his or her cremated remains.

As strange as it sounds, simple ignorance can also account for somebody not picking up cremated remains. Some people do not know enough about the cremation process and mistakenly believe that a body simply "disappears" after it is cremated. In fact, the cremation of an average-size adult results in cremated remains weighing 2.27 – 3.63 kilograms (5 – 8 pounds). While it is highly unlikely that a competent funeral director or arrangement counselor would fail to make the existence of cremated remains clear beforehand, survivors overlooking this fact can perhaps be excused (in some cases) by the overwhelming nature of grief and the public's general unfamiliarity with the cremation process.

Indecision about what to do with the cremated remains accounts for some families not picking up the urns and temporary cremation containers bearing the remains of their loved ones, as well. Today, most people associate scattering with cremation but do not realize that there are many other unique ways to handle cremated remains. Seeking something more "fitting" for the deceased, and unaware of the many options available, some families do not claim the cremated remains of their loved ones because they (mistakenly) think they need to decide what to do with them first.

Finally, another reason that remains go unclaimed is that picking up the cremated remains of a loved one requires acknowledging the reality of the death, which some people find difficult to accept. While everyone experiences a unique grief response in terms of timing and intensity, "normal" grieving eventually results in the recognition that a deceased loved one is truly, inexorably gone. In some cases, however, people cannot cope with this fact and therefore avoid picking up the cremated remains of a loved one because, consciously or not, doing so would posit a reality they seek to avoid. While such "complicated grief" might explain some instances of unclaimed cremated remains, it certainly doesn't account for most of them.

Related Articles:
The Cremation Process
Why Choose Cremation?
Unique Alternatives to Scattering Cremated Remains

"Cremated ashes are unclaimed, but not unwanted" by William Hageman, January 17, 2010. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 15, 2014. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-01-17/features/1001140373_1_cremated-remains-sets

"Cremation Association of North America Annual Statistics Report," October 2011. Cremation Association of North America. Retrieved August 15, 2014. Author's collection.

"What happens to uncollected ashes?" by Caleb Parkin, March 12, 2012. BBC News Magazine. Retrieved August 15, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17300390

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