Tending to what remains
There were no family members looking on as a minister read the committal service in Merritt’s Pineridge Cemetery on Aug. 15.
That was the point.
For the second time in his career, Paul Wright was overseeing a burial for those left behind — in this case, 42 people whose cremated remains had never been picked up from the Merritt Funeral Chapel.
In many cases, the final laying to rest was 40 years in the making.
“Only two of them were from our time owning Merritt Funeral Chapel, since 1988,” Wright explains.
“All the rest of them were pre-1988, that we inherited.”
But, when Wright’s family sold the chapel earlier this year, its new owners didn’t want the decades-old remains passed on to them.
“They wanted a clean slate,” he says.
Under B.C. law, Wright didn’t have to stage a funeral — nor did the chapel need to hold onto the remains as long as it had.
If remains aren’t picked up after a year, the province’s Cremation, Internment and Funeral Service legislation allows a funeral home to throw them out after providing sufficient notice it intends to do so.
However, Wright said that option didn’t sit well with him.
“I didn’t think that was appropriate,” he says, noting the remains were originally supposed to go into a common grave in Kamloops’ Hillside Cemetery.
That vault already holds the remains of 300 people whose ashes were left at Schoening Funeral Service in Kamloops between 1961, when the Wright family took it over, and 1995.
But, before the burial could take place, Wright got a call from a Merritt city councillor, asking that the remains stay local.
“I found it a bit ironic that they went unclaimed for 30, 40 years and then, when it did come time to bury them, that they wanted them buried in Merritt,” he says.
The city agreed to donate a grave and allow the mass burial and the ceremony proceeded.
Wright paid for the opening and closing of the grave and for an impermeable liner, which will keep the remains from becoming damaged.
“We wanted to do it respectfully and I think we achieved that,” he says.
A similar burial is planned for October in Kamloops, involving the remains of eight or 10 people.
As in Merritt, Wright says the new owners of Schoening don’t want to take on the old remains.
Wright says there are a number of reasons a person’s ashes may go unclaimed.
Family members may live out of town and arrange a cremation via email for a relative who was living in a care home here.
“They’ll tell us, ‘Well, next time we’re in Kamloops we’ll pick them up’ and they never show up. There are those sorts of things,” Wright says.
In other cases, the remains may be those of an indigent person or of someone with no surviving relatives left to pick them up.
“It really is unfortunate,” Wright says.
“And, we thought about that while we were at the graveside [in Merritt]. Here are 42 people that really had nobody left.”
However, the Merritt burial plans did lead to a few long-awaited pickups.
The Merritt Funeral Chapel advertised twice in the Merritt Herald a list of the individuals slated for internment and was able to reunite the remains of 11 people with family members.
The remains of another man were left out after Royal Canadian Legion members contacted the chapel, suggesting he may be eligible for a veteran’s plot.
In Kamloops, reunions have continued since the 1995 burial.
On at least two occasions, Wright says, people have paid to have the grave opened and remains removed at “considerable expense.”
While he is not aware of any other B.C. funeral home that buries its unclaimed remains, Wright says that possibility of retrieval years down the line is one reason not to toss the ashes out.
“And,” he adds with a laugh, “that’s bad karma.”