The office of the Ada County coroner includes a good-sized closet. Inside are bookshelves stacked with 52 boxes — all filled with ashes of men and women who have died in Ada County. Some of the boxes have typewritten names. Others bear names, dates of birth and dates of death written by hand.
The ashes, or cremains, have become a problem that Coroner Dotti Owens wants to solve.
“They should be respectfully interred somewhere. They’re the ashes of human beings. They shouldn’t be sitting in a county office,” said Owens.
The cremains fall into two categories.
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Some are considered “unclaimed” when a person has died alone, without known family. The unclaimed cremains include one particularly ornate box that came to the coroner’s office after ending up at a thrift store.
The remainder of the cremains are considered “abandoned.” They may be the most problematic.
In these cases, Owens and her staff have identified the deceased person’s next-of-kin, but for whatever reason, families have not stepped up to take care of the body and pay for the cremation. The coroner’s office — and by extension, the taxpayers of Ada County, get stuck with the bill from the funeral home — $800 per cremation.
Owens worked on cases where family members cleaned out a deceased person’s bank account, sold assets such as cars, then claimed they have no money to pay cremation costs.
What’s more, family members are later able to ask for the cremains. If they’re out of state, the county pays to ship them.
52 boxes of cremains sit in the coroner’s office
Owens contacted the county’s legal advisers about a situation where a deceased person’s mother lived on the East Coast. A brother who lived in the Treasure Valley wanted the deceased person’s assets, but he wasn’t interested in paying for or keeping the cremains. The deceased person’s mother did want the ashes. “Legal said, ‘Well, it’s family. There’s no law on the books. Release the cremains to them,’” Owens said.
The coroner’s office sent the cremains.
“This is a loophole in the system,” said Owens. “There’s nothing in our state statutes, nothing in our city ordinance that says a family has to reimburse us for part or all of the cremation expense.”
NOT JUST ADA’S PROBLEM
Owens has spoken with coroner colleagues in other counties, including Twin Falls.
“They’re in the same boat we are. Their legal department told them they couldn’t hold cremains ‘for ransom’ while they wait for reimbursement,” said Owens.
Twin Falls County is storing 13 boxes of cremains, said Coroner Gene Turley. Like Owens, he agrees a county office isn’t the proper storage place for human remains.
“It’s something not very many people know about. Excuse the pun, but the cremains have been put on the back shelf,” said Turley. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Twin Falls County, too, has had to pick up the bill when families don’t pay.
“They don’t want to have that financial responsibility,” said Turley, adding that in some cases, families without deep pockets justifiably struggle to pay their bill. In other cases, he said, “they’re just lazy.”
Owens has researched and found that some states, including Washington, have laws to protect counties. Coroners require families to reimburse at least half of the cost of cremation to claim cremains. If shipping is required, families pay for it themselves. Asking for new legislation to address the local problem is “on the radar,” said Owens. She’s presented her case to the Ada County Board of Commissioners and they’re in support.
Still, she does not want to eliminate county assistance for cremation. Some cases — when there’s an unexpected death, a suicide or a drug overdose — catch families unprepared and without financial resources. She is always willing to work with families to find solutions, she said. That could include connecting families to resources and agencies that could help them, or working out a payment plan.
“It’s good to have a safety net for families. But there also has to be a safety net for the county,” Owens said.
FINDING A FINAL RESTING PLACE
Unclaimed cremains present a different challenge. When a person dies without known family, Owens and her staff become detectives.
“We spend hundreds of man hours looking for next-of-kin,” said Owens.
Each of the boxes holding ashes presents a challenge, its own little mystery. Investigators have turned to a deceased person’s medical records to find emergency contact numbers, or interviewed past employers to help find family. Sometimes, they don’t have a lot to go on. They scour a deceased person’s apartment looking for names in birthday cards, or in photo albums. In one recent case, Owens found family members through Facebook — two daughters who believed their father had died years before.
There has to be someone who’s concerned enough to see that these people get a proper burial
Val Brisbin, Ada County chief deputy coroner
The office is an avid user of the NamUs, or National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database. Staffers compile as many details about a deceased person as possible, including tattoos or other identifying marks, hoping their family will go on the website and recognize a clue.
“We believe that we can find somebody for everyone,” said Val Brisbin, chief deputy coroner.
Law requires the coroner’s office to find a final location for cremains that remain abandoned or unclaimed. The coroner’s office is looking into buying a crypt from a local mortuary that could hold as many as 350 boxes of cremains.
The Ada County commissioners, who handle the county’s budget, are currently deciding whether the purchase of a roughly $9,000 crypt would fall to the treasurer or the county’s indigent fund. Coroner staff would be able to open the crypt easily to retrieve cremains if a family member later came forward.
Sometimes it can take years for that to happen, said Owens. One box of cremains, the oldest in the collection, has sat in the coroner’s closet, waiting to be claimed since 1996.