Recently, Michigan consumer media was alarmed to learn that a funeral home had stored cremated remains in a storage locker. Worried about nefarious dealings, reporters asked if this indicated criminal activity. Asked for comment, the Michigan Funeral Directors Association assured that possession and storage of unclaimed cremated remains is common.
Indeed, the new owners of the funeral home had followed best practices by identifying the cremated remains and attempting to find families. The previous owner encountered what many do – the families had abandoned the cremated remains at the funeral home. Under Michigan law, cremated remains only need to be stored for six months before they can be respectfully placed, but the staff at many funeral homes balk at taking further action. They are troubled by the idea that cremated remains could be irrevocably separated from loved ones.
A recent issue of The Cremationist discussed this very topic. The answer, simply, is to take proactive steps to emphasize the value of permanent placement in all discussions with families and to encourage them to make a deliberate decision. For many, cremation is valued because it adds time and flexibility to make these important decisions, so they tend to endlessly defer them. Three industry professionals offered their recommendations for helping families make a choice that is right for them and appropriate for the storage space available in their funeral home.
A Question of Value by Steven Palmer
The question I pose to families choosing cremation is, “what would you do for a final decision if you hadn't selected cremation?” Now ultimate determinations must be considered.
To assist them in this thought process, I tell them not to think in the short term, but think eternally. If a casket is placed in a permanent resting place, why not an urn? Scattering is an option only to be chosen when it is well thought out and meaningful. It should not be performed because “we couldn't think of anything else.”
Other options to suggested may be:
Family Heritage Plot: Where are your grandparents or great-grandparents buried? In a large family lot back home? I am sure that there is space for an urn to reunite family.
Veterans Cemeteries: When an employee's husband died and was cremated, I suggested he be placed in a local national cemetery, taking advantage of this no cost benefit he had earned. She mentioned his mother's urn needed final placement somewhere. I inquired whether her father-in-law was a veteran. He was, an honorable discharge and marriage certificate were produced and, even though the father-in-law was interred in another state, she was eligible. Son and mother were placed in side by side niches without additional cost to the family.
Other more contemporary placements such as niches along a cemetery walkway or base of a statue or even being part of a reef placed in the ocean. Creative thinking can solve this indecision.
Dealing with Cremated Remains by Daniel M. Isard
I have a very dear friend whose mother was dying. Not understanding what I did for a living, but knowing it was in the funeral profession, she called me to help her plan her mother’s disposition. She wanted her mother’s body to be cremated. We went through the process of planning the funeral service.
Before the cremation I asked, “Mary, who do you want to take possession of your mother’s cremated remains?” She said, “Oh we don’t want them. Just tell the funeral director to do something with them!” I said, “The funeral home can place them in a cemetery for perpetual keeping or give them to you to dispose of as you see fit.”
Many consumers don’t care what happens to the cremated remains of their loved one’s body. There are added decisions they don’t want to deal with. These cremated remains can be converted into diamonds or potting soil but the consumer doesn’t want to make that decision.
One technique that I have found to be successful involves building out the cremation authorization to include the return of the cremated remains. The family is told that they can either pick-up the cremated remains from the funeral home or the funeral home can deliver the cremated remains to the appointed family member. The key points are the date range for the retrieval.
Offering Guidance on Cremation Options by Mark Zimmer
We acquired firm a few years ago, and during our due diligence, discovered a cupboard containing 16 cremated remains that were unclaimed. They had two crypts at a local cemetery into which the unclaimed urns were entombed, reopened as needed to add others. While this is an effective way of placing unclaimed urns in an accessible place, it is costly and in my opinion, not an option one wishes to exercise!
We have all read the professional journal articles suggesting that the funeral director needs to offer guidance to families. I agree and feel it is imperative to discuss what the family’s decision on final placement of the cremated remains will be at the arrangement conference. In the arrangement conference I have heard such remarks as, “don’t you get rid of them?” and “I never thought of that!”
Winter time in Wisconsin can be brutal. Frost can go as deep as 5 feet, with 25 inches of snow on the surface. Families who desire a service in January many times wish to postpone any committal or military honors until spring. They also feel uncomfortable about keeping their loved ones cremated remains at home.
It occurred to me some time ago that we needed to create an option for those at-need families who were not sure of what to do with the cremated remains. Our firm developed an “Urn Repository” which holds cremated remains on agreement with the family regarding final placement, how long the urn will remain at our firm, and how we will contact the family regarding a service at a later date. We then track aging, just like receivables, and send reminders as well as phone calls. It is a system that has proven effective!
Lending your company’s authority and your personal experience guides families to made decisions to honor their loved ones in a meaningful way. Working together to honor families’ wishes and ensure the deceased is properly cared for is paramount to CANA’s Code of Cremation Practice. It’s our duty as a service industry to find balance and peace for our communities.
Members can read the full article with complete introduction and additional solutions from Chris Farmer of The Farmer Firm in Vol. 52, No. 2 Issue of The Cremationist. Not a member? Consider joining your business to access this and all archives of The Cremationist plus resources and statistics to help you find solutions for all aspects of your business -- only $470.
Steven Palmer entered funeral service in 1971. A funeral director in Massachusetts and California, he purchased the Westcott Funeral Homes in Arizona in 1997. He is a past president of the Arizona Funeral Directors Association and current National Funeral Directors Association Policy Board Representative for Arizona. He has been a columnist for the Nomis Funeral & Cemetery News (former YB News) since 1996 and has contributed to other funeral service publications.
Dan Isard, MSFS, is a writer, educator, and management and financial consultant. He is the president of The Foresight Companies LLC, a Phoenix-based business and management consulting firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions, valuations, accounting, financing HR services, and family surveys. He can be reached at 800-426-0165 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with Isard and The Foresight Companies by following them on Twitter at @f4sight or on Facebook.
Mark Zimmer, President of Zimmer Funeral Homes, Inc., attended Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and graduated from Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago in 1977. Mark moved to the Sheboygan area in 1983 after purchasing the former Ahrens Funeral Home in Howards Grove. In 1996, he acquired the former Gerend-Habermann Funeral Home in Sheboygan. In 2003, work was completed on the new 8500-sq.-ft. Westview Funeral & Cremation Care Center. Mark is a past president of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association and a past president of the Lakeshore Funeral Directors Association.