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British Columbia Forgotten ashes are a vexing reality for funeral homes

It’s one thing to put off exercising, doing the dishes or washing your car, but representatives of Canada’s funeral-services industry say sometimes people put off something as significant as retrieving the cremated remains of their loved ones.

A Vancouver Island funeral-services company recently highlighted the issue. Hatley Memorial Gardens, operated by the Arbor Memorial company, took out a newspaper ad a few weeks ago to say the cremated remains of 30 people had been left behind over the past year. They asked that they be collected.

But this is not just an issue for the funeral home in the Victoria-area community of Colwood. Funeral-services operators across Canada say that, while relatively rare, this kind of thing is a vexing reality for the industry.

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Individuals are cremated, but no one turns up to collect the ashes.

“It doesn’t happen that often. That is one good thing, but, again, it does happen,” Brett Watson, the Calgary-based president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada, said in an interview.

Mr. Watson, and others interviewed, said there are no industry statistics or data on the issue; just the experiences of those in the industry.

He blames the situation on what he calls the current “death-denying society” where people don’t want to deal with death, and some see dealing with the remains as too much trouble.

“It appears to me and others in the profession that it’s an inconvenience, if that makes sense,” he said. “Either people don’t want to deal with it or they don’t want to face the loss of the loved one. Or they have busy lives, and it’s almost an inconvenience to have to deal with.”

In some cases, poor relationships between the dead and the living who are supposed to tend to the remains come into play. “We see a lot of that,” Mr. Watson said.

In Canada, cremation is preferred over burial. According to 2017 figures provided by Statistics Canada, 68,355 Canadians were buried, while 152,290 were cremated. About 55,000 were dealt with by “unknown” means.

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On the “unknown” designation, a spokesperson for the agency said that it applies to cases where there were no data on the means of a person’s dispensation as well as cases where, for example, a person’s remains were donated to science.

Adam Tipert, president of C.F. Sweeny’s Funeral Homes Ltd. in Nova Scotia, and chairman of the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, also blamed society’s view of death.

“As unfortunate as it is, we have found that society has elevated itself to a position where the death of a loved one is not held in the highest respect as in years gone by,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“It is seen as a task to get it done and so, therefore, if there is no interest in finalizing details such as collecting the cremated remains from the funeral home and having them buried or scattered, they are left behind.”

Bruce Hogg, a New Brunswick service-association member, said for some clients, there’s less urgency about cremated remains than a body that has not been cremated.

Some in the industry said the forgotten remains means funeral-service providers need to be more earnest and diligent about ensuring that someone take responsibility.

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They also said individuals who are single or without close family and friends may need to make advance funeral arrangements so that their remains are recovered.

“That would ensure that every individual was handled properly,” Mr. Tipert said.

Mr. Hogg said Arbor is taking the right approach by taking out a newspaper ad.

Dustin Wright, spokesperson for Arbor Memorial, said it was following regulations in British Columbia laid out for all cemeteries, including outreach to families by phone, registered mail and, finally, multiple newspaper notices.

Asked if the Hatley Gardens ad effort had been successful, Mr. Wright said in an e-mail Friday that remains are not always claimed.

“Sadly despite all our efforts, we do not typically see all unclaimed urns released back to family members. If our outreach efforts result in the release of one set of cremated remains back to their family, we will have succeeded.”

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He wrote that after about a year unclaimed urns go to “a final resting place with dignity and care within our cemetery.”

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