Some families may not realize it, but the cremated remains of their loved ones have been sitting on shelves in some Nova Scotia funeral homes for decades.
Kollin Weatherbee, the owner and operator of Sydney Memorial Chapel and Cape Breton Crematorium, said they have about 20 unclaimed cremated remains that date back as many as 20 years.
Weatherbee is one of the many funeral home operators, crematoriums and cemetery licensees in the province who received a letter this week from the Nova Scotia government asking about their experience with unclaimed cremated remains.
The letter said the province is considering regulations after being contacted by funeral professionals over the last few years about what to do with them.
Rodger Gregg, the province’s registrar of cemetery and funeral services, said it’s unknown how many unclaimed cremated remains are at Nova Scotia funeral homes and that’s part of the reason the department is doing the survey.
“I think a lot of it depends on the size of the funeral home and how long the funeral home has been operating,” he said, adding some funeral directors have told him they have remains that have been unclaimed for upwards of 40 years.
In addition to the number of unclaimed remains, the province is also asking funeral homes to outline their process for tracking them.
Weatherbee said most families don’t realize their loved one’s remains are still at a funeral home.
He said he started contacting families about 10 years ago to ensure they were aware the ashes had not been picked up, but he stopped making the calls.
“Basically, it caused more of a disturbance because they already thought the burial had taken place or someone would blame their sibling or uncle who was supposed to look after that at the time,” Weatherbee said. “So it was more of a hassle and it was just getting families worked up.”
Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, said in an email that they hear many reasons why remains are not claimed, including the misconception that the funeral home is a final resting place.
“Consumers are choosing cremation without really understanding what is involved,” she said, citing the case of a son who was outraged to discover through a newspaper article that his father’s remains were identified as unclaimed and placed in a military cemetery.
She said unpaid bills may be another reason people don’t collect their loved one’s remains, although in the United States it’s against the law to withhold remains until the bill is paid.
She said if a death is traumatic, the family may not wish to take possession of the remains and consider them safe at the funeral home. She pointed to the case of a father with three young daughters who delayed retrieval of his wife’s remains until his daughters were old enough to understand.
Weatherbee said funeral homes in Nova Scotia are only legally required to hold cremated remains for 90 days, according to the cremation permission form the family is required to sign.
However, he said his funeral home is not comfortable spreading the ashes or disposing of them in a cemetery without the family’s permission, so they are placed in a designated space, away from more recent cremations.
Weatherbee said his funeral home has a process for tracking unclaimed remains, including a log book identifying the urn, the deceased person and other relevant information.
While he feels it’s a good idea for the government to be looking into unclaimed remains, “respectable funeral homes should have had these policies in place since they started holding cremations.”
“I don’t know if the government needs to have a specific action plan to blanket all funeral homes and I don’t even think they’re really looking for that. I think they just want to know, does a funeral home have a plan, what is it and how is it working?”
New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador do not have regulations governing unclaimed cremated remains, although Nova Lee Scammell, chair of the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Board of Newfoundland and Labrador, said some funeral home owners have recently raised concerns about the issue.
Gregg said a few provinces do have regulations, but in Nova Scotia a determination on whether they’re needed will be made once the government hears from funeral homes.
“If we find out there’s maybe less than five unclaimed cremated remains at every funeral home, maybe that doesn’t warrant regulatory changes right now. We need to understand the scope of the problem and then we’ll react accordingly,” he said.