Unclaimed cremains interred with special service in Millsboro
About a dozen people attended a committal ceremony for cremation remains unclaimed by families for years, with one of the cremains being kept at the funeral home since 1976.
A dozen sets of remains were committed during an ecumenical service in the chapel in Woodlawn Cemetery on Route 113 in Millsboro on Saturday, Sept. 14. The remains were placed in a mausoleum “so that, in case anybody comes to get them later, they will be there with real dignity,” said Bob Herrington, owner of Watson Funeral Home.
The Rev. Dr. James C. Van Der Wall, retired pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Millsboro, officiated the ceremony, including prayers suitable for those of the Christian or Jewish faiths.
“We had a long-stemmed rose on each of the urns. We carried them up in the hearse and tried to run it as though it were a full-blown funeral. In case anybody was in the military, we played ‘Taps’ and we had the American flag there. Dr. Van Der Wall called the name of each, the date born and the date the person died, and rang a bell. It was very touching,” Herrington said.
“We wouldn’t have been able to have the service without Joanne Adams, who is in charge of Woodlawn Cemetery. She gave us a lot of assistance. We asked anyone who wanted to, to please come, so somebody would be there for these people,” Herrington told the Coastal Point prior to the service.
“A lady from Georgetown called me and said she was planning to come. A man from the medical examiner’s office said they were in touch with the Patriot Guard motorcycle group and they were hoping some of them would come, but it was motorcycle weekend in Ocean City and I imagine they were otherwise obligated. We notified all the fire chiefs of Delaware asking if any firemen would consider coming,” he said.
“It’s not always that nobody cared about these people. It isn’t that a family is terrible. It could be they were completely indigent and all their family members died off. It’s not that these families were terrible for not picking them up,” an understanding Herrington said.
Originally, there were 16 urns of unclaimed remains, but staff managed to locate family members of four, so 12 remained to be dedicated. A couple of people contacted were elderly and not in a financial position to bear the cost of cremation. One relative lives in England and is retired.
“It used to be that funeral homes were required to hang on to ashes hoping someone would come back. Years ago, the owner of a funeral home in Dover died and the people who came in found these cremated remains and freaked out. He was doing what he was supposed to do, but the hype and hysteria were terrible. Nobody would listen,” Herrington said.
The Funeral Board passed a new regulation, that if ashes were 60 days old, the funeral home had to notify the Attorney General’s Office. After one year, funeral home owners are allowed to inter them “in such a manner that they can be retrieved with a record kept of where they are,” he said.
At one time, Herrington had remains that had been left at the funeral home since 1964, but the staff was able to locate someone in the family who collected that urn.
“Over the years, we’ve tried over and over to reach someone to retrieve these ashes,” he said.
This was the first time Watson Funeral Home conducted such a committal service. Herrington said the funeral home was required to follow regulations set by the Delaware Board of Funeral Services, in accordance with Regulation 3121.
“We didn’t want to do it right away. We wanted to try to find people, family members. We had to buy the mausoleum crypt to put them in. It’s the same size as a casket. They have a special tray so if you want to retrieve somebody, everyone is identified,” he said.
“This certainly made an impact on me, and I felt sad that this was the way it was going. I wanted to make sure I did it, had the committal service, with as much dignity as possible. We funeral directors have been organizing funerals and funeral homes for a long time. It all seemed to just come together.”
By Susan Canfora