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Cremated remains of dozens of people in Central Pa. remain in storage with coroners, funeral homes

Written by Brandie Kessler/York Daily Record | Sep 29, 2017 1:16 PM

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The remains of dozens of people who have died without their family knowing or with their family unable to pay for their arrangements are being stored by coroners' offices or funeral homes in South Central Pennsylvania.

York County Coroner Pam Gay said there are an average of 25 to 50 cases each year in which the deceased is unclaimed by family, at least initially.

Those people are identified and, typically, after a short time, their family will come to claim their remains. But in some cases, where family isn't found and can't be contacted, or when the family is contacted but doesn't come forward, the county pays for the cost of cremation, Gay said.

"A very small number of those are what end up being stored at a funeral home," Gay said. She said the county doesn't have the room to store the cremated remains, or cremains. Two funeral homes, Gladfelter Funeral Home Inc., and John W. Keffer Funeral Home, both in York, store some of those remains for the county at no cost.

Joseph Keffer, owner of the John W. Keffer Funeral Home, said a funeral home can't withhold a person's ashes as collateral for payment. It's unlawful, he said.

So if someone hasn't come to pick up their loved one's remains because they don't have the money to pay for the cremation, Keffer tells them not to be "sheepish about the payment," he said.

"People should really come pick (their family member's remains) up," Keffer said.

Franklin County Coroner Jeffrey Conner said there are four cases of unclaimed cremains in that county so far this year. Those cremains are stored by his office in a gun safe and are available at any time if a family claims them.

Conner said his office sees up to half a dozen cases of unclaimed cremains each year.

Adams County Coroner Pat Felix said her office had four unclaimed cremains up until last week, when one family came to claim one of the cremains.

"One or two in there are from years past, where there wasn't any family," Felix said. The people were identified, but there was no family to claim them, Felix said. One of the deaths was at a nursing home, she said, and no one came forward even after her office put an ad in the newspaper.

She said her office stores the cremains since there aren't many cases of unclaimed cremains.

In Lancaster County, the cremains of 64 people who have not been claimed will be buried in early October.

Keffer said even when cremains are claimed by the deceased person's family, they sometimes make their way back to his funeral home.

Within the past year, someone found an urn in a storage unit and called him since his funeral home's identification was with the remains. He had to find another family member to take those remains.

A few years ago, someone found an urn in the Susquehanna River, he said. It seemed like someone intended to spread the ashes in the river, but the plastic container didn't disintegrate. A passerby found the urn about 6 feet away from the river's bank.

There are urns made of salt or other biodegradable materials for such purposes, Keffer said.

Keffer said his funeral home has fewer than 25 unclaimed cremains secured in storage, including some that have come from funeral homes that had them when they closed their business. He hopes that one day, all the cremains will be returned those who knew them and loved them.

"My hope for them is that their loved ones will step up and take them," Keffer said.

If eventually his funeral home ends up with enough unclaimed cremains that it makes sense to bury them or put them in a crypt, he will do that, he said. And if family comes forward after the fact, "they could unearth them and retrieve them," Keffer said.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and York Daily Record. 

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