Funeral director seeks final home for containers of unclaimed ashes

Funeral director James Abele holds the remains of people who ve been cremated, but unclaimed by family members.
Funeral director James Abele holds the remains of people who ve been cremated, but unclaimed by family members.

A curious and lesser-known fact of the funeral business is that not all families bother to pick up the cremated remains of their loved ones.

Sometimes this is due to unpaid funeral bills. Occasionally relatives will make ambitious plans for scattering ashes that never pan out. But most of the reasons stay mysteries.

Contact numbers and addresses will change as months drag into years, eventually leaving funeral directors such as James Abele with a sealed cardboard box containing the remains of someone that no one living seems to want.

It s one of those things where you have them, and you ve contacted the family, and they don t return to pick them up, said Mr. Abele, 59, owner of Abele Funeral Home, 1910 Cherry St., in North Toledo. What more can be done?

The Abele funeral home is one of Toledo s oldest, and has amassed two dozen abandoned and unclaimed cremated remains over a period of seven decades. With the funeral home now set to close, Mr. Abele is undertaking an effort to reconnect these remains to their surviving relatives.

Those who can prove familial relations to the deceased may contact the funeral home and arrange to pick up the ashes. Mr. Abele, who last week ran a legal notice in The Blade advertising the opportunity, said he hopes that relatives will step forward, but understands the long odds.

From 41 until now, you ve probably gone through two or three generations, he said, in reference to the earliest remains of four people who died in 1941.

Altogether there are 10 remains from the 1940s, six from the 1950s, one from 1979, two from the 1980s and 1990s, and three from this decade. Until two weeks ago, they were stored in a downstairs closet in the funeral home.

All but one of the remains are packed in the original cardboard box from the crematory. Those of the youngest deceased, labeled Infant Boy Mosher, who died in July, 1952, are in a small tin.

Mr. Abele said he is closing the family funeral home, and needs people to claim the remains before Aug. 16, which is four days before the funeral home property goes up for auction.

For those that stay unclaimed, Mr. Abele plans to go forward with what funeral industry professionals describe as standard practice: burying them in a common grave.

Family members could still contact Mr. Abele to retrieve their relatives remains, but by law that person would have to pay to have them disinterred.

Ann Cunningham, director of the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, said it s not unusual for funeral homes to hold onto the remains.

Probably every funeral home in the state has cremated remains that aren t picked up, she said. Whereas probably you and I would, there are people that don t.

Mr. Abele said that in his phone conversations with relatives of the deceased, most expressed an intention to pick up the remains.

I ve never really had someone say, Oh keep them, Mr. Abele said. They usually say they will come and get mom and dad, and they don t.

Under state law, funeral homes may properly dispose of the remains once 60 days have passed without contact from the person authorized to receive them. Proper disposal means interment within a grave, crypt, or niche .

Mr. Abele said he had considered advertising years earlier to find their surviving relatives, but never got around to it until now, when his building is about to close.

The Abele Funeral Home claims 1860 as its founding date. For years, Mr. Abele ran the funeral home with his brother, Joseph Abele, who died July 20 following a battle with cancer. They were the fifth generation of Abeles in the business.

Mr. Abele said his brother s lengthy illness and death prompted his decision to close.

About one-third of all deaths in the United States result in cremation, up from about one-fifth in the mid-1990s, said Jessica Koth, spokesman for the National Funeral

Directors Association. Cremations in the early part of the 20th century were not as common as today, she said.

Ms. Koth said that the Abele Funeral Home s situation, with cremations dating to the 1940s, was somewhat unusual, but not totally unheard of.

I have heard stories of funeral homes in parts of the country having cremated remains from the turn of the [20th] century, she said.

Contact JC Reindl at:jreindl@theblade.comor 419-724-6065.