Hundreds of unclaimed in funeral home storeroom

2010-12-11T13:00:00Z 2010-12-12T17:45:42Z Hundreds of unclaimed in funeral home storeroomBy Robert Samuels | McClatchy Newspapers
December 11, 2010 1:00 pm  • 

MIAMI -- Behind a bolted door, in the back of an old mortuary, is a purgatory on Earth. Ashes of the dead sit in shoebox-sized containers on dusty shelves, cremated at the behest of loved ones who never retrieved them.

So now, they are kept inside a cooled 10-by-10 room. Current occupancy is 407.

They are sons and daughters of the poor, the rich and the middle-class. They lived through the Great Depression and Hurricane Andrew and Sept. 11, and run the gamut of South Florida's many cultures. They led robust lives before they were burned, then neglected.

Funeral home owner Donald Van Orsdel holds out hope that someone might want them one day, so he keeps them in his central office just outside Miami's Design District in a room rarely unlocked to the public. There are hundreds of histories inside now, but Van Orsdel believes the future will bring many more.

By 2025, nearly seven of every 10 bodies in the state will be cremated -- one of the highest rates in the country. The rest of the nation is following the trend. Cremation is set to grow another 64 percent by that time, becoming the nation's predominant way of disposing of the deceased.

Local funeral directors say a handful of families leave their kin behind each year. When that happens, funeral home owners are left with a pile of calcium and a quandary, guided by morality and legality: What to do with the ashes?

Van Orsdel's solution, storing them for decades, isn't typical, but it feels right to him.

After all, it's what his grandfather would have done.

Van Orsdel's South Florida roots are deep. He's a third-generation funeral home director and is training his daughter to be the fourth person at the helm of Van Orsdel's Funeral Chapels, one of the few locally owned funeral homes left in the county.

In 1924, Henry Van Orsdel and Clifford Van Orsdel began preparing funerals in Miami-Dade when the area was mostly agricultural and mostly Anglo. When it came to records, Henry -- Donald's grandfather -- made a vow to never throw away a single file.

Families deal with death in different ways, he'd say. Some organize elaborate ceremonies. Others are too busy or too pained, and just want to move on.

Coping changes over time, Van Orsdel's grandfather used to say. Sometimes, kin might return for a copy of the death certificate they threw away. Or to be reminded of where exactly they placed the grave. Or to retrieve remains they forgot to pick up.

When the Van Orsdels started, cremation was taboo -- many considered it a harsh treatment of the body created in God's image.

The tide started to change in the '60s, Van Orsdel said, after the Vatican declared that cremation was a suitable alternative to burial. By 1976, the Van Orsdels needed to purchase a crematory of their own.

Cremations, at the time, were usually requested by the wealthy. That was especially true in coastal states, such as Florida and California, where families wished to scatter ashes at sea.

Even then, the grandfather thought that "one day, cremation was going to be big," Van Orsdel said.

At 58, Van Orsdel has seen the practice spread from the wealthy to everyone else. When the economy started to sag, the gradually increasing preference for cremation started to spike.

A cremation costs hundreds of dollars, on average, according to John Ross, president for the Cremation Association of North America. Burials are much more expensive: Between selecting coffins and finding grave sites, markers and tombstones, the entire tab can run well into the thousands.

In the past nine years, a Miami Herald analysis of death statistics found, the number of cremations in the country has tripled. The largest jumps have been seen in the South -- Tennessee saw a 700 percent increase, for example -- and in the land-locked Great Plains.

"There are a couple of reasons," said Jim Ford of the Fort Lauderdale-based Neptune Society, whose national cremation business has seen double-digit increases over the past three years. "There's price sensitivity, and there's also the transient nature of our society. People don't dig their roots as deep as they used to."

Van Orsdel bought a new computer-operated cremation machine this year to deal with the increased demand. It burns at up to 2,000 degrees, reducing the body to 8 to 12 pounds of powdery calcium.

Families typically show up before the body is burned to pay their last respects. The remains are then handed to the family in a container of their choice -- which include urns, clocks, lockets, cuff links, bird feeders, ceramic rose stems and environmentally friendly caskets that are biodegradable.

Sometimes, they ask for a pacemaker or grandma's prosthetic. One person asked for cremation workers to retrieve a relative's gold teeth.

At Van Orsdel, the oldest remains are in an urn that dates back to 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Van Orsdel holds out hope that someone might pick up the urn one day.

He isn't legally obligated to keep the remains. He's not allowed to hold them for ransom if a family can't pay for the ashes, nor does he charge for storage. State law allows a funeral home to discard human remains -- without ceremony -- after four months.

Many local funeral home directors do just that after failed attempts to contact the family. Ford, of the Neptune Society, said his organization sends certified notices before scattering the remains at sea.

Discarding human remains just makes Van Orsdel uncomfortable. His grandfather taught him that such ceremonies are sacred. He doesn't release the names or genders of the cremated remains to protect their privacy.

"I'd rather not have a family walk in and tell them we buried them at sea," Van Orsdel said.

"There was a family that came to pick up the cremains after 20 years, and I was so glad to help."

He's vowed to keep his ashes until the area runs out of room. There are 407 now, and he thinks this purgatory can hold hundreds more.

(c) 2010, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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