- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Chris Goes has a closet full of human ashes.

Stephanie Goes is the keeper of that closet, which is home to about 25 unclaimed cremated remains in the couple’s funeral home in northeast Fort Collins. She tenderly runs her hands along its shelves, sharing what she knows about each resident.

A woman who has been in Stephanie’s care since her death in 1998 will probably never be claimed, Stephanie says. A mother and a daughter who died months apart rest on separate shelves of the closet. A baby’s remains in a small maroon velvet satchel, which Stephanie stops to pick up and hold for a moment. It is one of four babies never claimed by their families.

Every year, she tries to contact family members of these forgotten souls, if she knows them. She’s called one woman at least once a year for a decade, to no avail.

“How did you get to the point where nobody claims you?” Stephanie Goes asked while looking at the closet. “I just hope I never get to that point in my life. You need to reconcile. It’s important to forgive.”

For those she hasn’t found family, she pulls their dusty files off a shelf and combs through the pages in case she missed something.

These are her people.

“They deserve to be someplace besides my closet. … They deserve to have a final resting place,” she said.

Goes Funeral Care & Crematory, 3665 Canal Drive Suite E in Fort Collins, isn’t the only funeral home with such a closet. Chris said unclaimed cremains, or cremated remains, present a challenge for every funeral home in the country.

In Larimer County, there are 20 unclaimed remains for whom no next of kin was found, but the problem is likely much larger. At Goes Funeral Care, that list accounts for only two of about 25 unclaimed remains.

In some cases, family members are found and have been contacted, but they never take the final step of picking up the cremains.

When you die

How does it happen? How are loved ones - many of whose next of kin know the ashes are there - left on a shelf for years?

Some were estranged from their families, making it hard to find relatives. Others are the result of a falling out, with no one willing to take care of their final need. Some were homeless.

No matter why a person’s remains are unclaimed, there’s no lack of trying to find their relatives.

Dianne Fairman, chief deputy coroner investigator with the Larimer County Medical Examiner’s Office, said most of the more than 1,000 deceased people processed by the coroner’s office each year are claimed “right away.” The office handles approximately half of all Larimer County deaths.

If family is not readily found, the search begins. Contact information is pursued in a deceased individual’s belongings.

The next step is checking a series of databases, including those at law enforcement offices.

If that doesn’t work, “that’s when we hit a wall,” Fairman said.

That’s when cases are turned over to Bill Kaufman, Larimer County’s public administrator for more than 20 years. If there’s a large enough estate, Kaufman diligently searches for its rightful owner.

But more often than not, there’s not much of an estate, he said. The smallest estate he’s managed was one penny.

With Kaufman’s blessing, funeral homes take unclaimed bodies on a rotating monthly basis and cremate them, set them on a shelf and hope one day someone will claim them.

Neither Kaufman nor the funeral homes receive payment from the county for their services.

If an estate is large enough, Kaufman takes his fee for services. If there’s still money left from the estate, funeral homes can be reimbursed for the cost of cremation, which ranges from $1,100 to $3,000.

If not, funeral home owners take the several thousand dollar hit.

“It’s a burden,” said Steve Vessey of Vessey Funeral Service, 2649 E. Mulberry St. A-1 in Fort Collins. “But we do it cheerfully because we have the best interest of our deceased in our hearts. It’s just too bad that we as individual businesses take the brunt of that.”

While funeral homes can and will ask for family members to settle the estate if someone claims remains, they cannot “hold them hostage” if someone is unable or unwilling to pay, Stephanie aid.

There are 20 unclaimed remains, with one dating to 1997, on Kaufman’s caseload, according to a list published by the Larimer County Medical Examiner’s Office. They’re housed at seven funeral homes across Larimer County. Thirteen additional remains from Kaufman’s list have been claimed or scattered since 2002.

Kaufman’s list only includes people who had no next of kin and were turned over to the Larimer County public administrator when the coroner released their body. Official tracking of those remains began in 2002, meaning there are likely many more unclaimed cremains in Larimer County from before the list began, Fairman said.

But the problem is likely much larger than Kaufman’s caseload.

At Goes Funeral Care, Kaufman’s list accounts for two of about 25 unclaimed people.

The numbers can vary widely depending on how long a funeral home has been open. Vessey Funeral Service has been open for nine years and has two lingering cases without much hope of finding anyone to claim the cremains.

Vessey said both cases are homeless individuals for whom he and his wife held services but no one was able to claim the remains.

“We may hold onto them forever,” Vessey said. “Whoever takes over this funeral home 50 years from now will have to deal with that. That’s pretty sad.”

The law

There is legislation about how such remains can be handled and funeral homes can face legal ramifications if they don’t follow the law. In Colorado, ashes have to be stored in a recoverable manner, meaning they can be interred or stored, for at least three years.

Burying or interring ashes can cost upward of $500 - a cost most funeral homes aren’t willing to pay on cases where they already aren’t reimbursed for cremation.

In Colorado, unclaimed ashes can be scattered anywhere with a permit and the consent of family or the public administrator after three years. Only Goes has asked for this permission, Kaufman said.

Otherwise, remains must be scattered in a dedicated cemetery, scattering garden or consecrated ground used exclusively for scattering. These options typically come at a cost, usually upward of a few hundred dollars, Stephanie said.

It’s a cost most funeral homes can’t afford.

That’s why Chris Goes has his closet.

___

Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com

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