LANGHORNE, Pa. (AP) - No one in the family met Richard J. Wright. They didn’t know he existed until what was left of him was found in the garage.
Since that day seven years ago, Helen McCarthy Flail has considered “Sir Richard” as a family member, leaving space for him in the garage, but making sure never to touch his sacred ashes.
McCarthy Flail’s family learned that Richard Joseph Wright died February 1, 1997, six months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 60. He has a wife, named Harriett. He worked as a mail clerk and in catalog sales.
His last address was on Woodbourne Road in Middletown, which is now a shopping center. Nine years after his death, his remains sit on a wooden- plank shelf among paint cans, spackle tubs and tile grout. No one dares to throw them away.
“For me it’s just sad someone can be there on the earth and have a presence and they’re done and they’re sitting in a garage,” McCarthy Flail said.
As the number of cremations continue to rise among Americans, so too are the number of people whose ashes are forgotten or abandoned.
Remains of the unclaimed dead often end up in coroner’s offices and funeral homes. But then there are the ashes that, for one reason or another, wind up among the living.
Strangers often take on the role of stewards for these remains.
One man’s ashes were kept in his local bar. Another’s ashes turned up in the trunk of a used car. The remains of a developmentally disabled woman have been sitting in a lawyer’s office for nearly 20 years.
The Cremation Association of North America estimates about 1% of cremated remains go unclaimed annually. With the rising popularity of cremation — CANA projects the U.S. cremation rate will be 59% in 2023— those unclaimed remain numbers are only expected to rise.
There are likely many reasons why ashes are left behind. But one is quite obvious, said Frank Farley, a Temple University professor and former president of the American Psychological Association.
Not all families are one big love affair and perhaps keeping those ashes around would be an ever-present reminder of someone better forgotten.
“A move might be an opportunity to walk away from some of that negativity,” he said.
Coroner offices are often the first place people will call when they find abandoned ashes, said Charles Kiessling Jr., president of the Pennsylvania Coroners Association and the longtime coroner for Lycoming County.
“Many of us have received urns found in various locations,” he said.
Kiessling recalled only one time he got a call from someone who discovered cremated remains in a house. But, Lycoming doesn’t have that many unclaimed dead, he added.
About 10 years ago, Montgomery County’s Chief Deputy Coroner Alexander Balacki took a call from a guy who had just bought a used car.
When he opened the trunk, he found someone’s cremated remains. He had no way to get in touch with the seller. What should he do with them?
“The answer is, whatever you want,” Balacki said.
Clarkson “Sparky” Gromis spent 20 years in his favorite bar after his death. At least, that is the story Balacki was told.
Gromis, who was 82 when he died, was last known to be living in Royersford in west Montgomery County. For decades he worked for Pottstown Borough in their public works department.
He was featured in several photos and stories in the local newspaper, the Pottstown Mercury, starting in April 1941, when he left for basic training with others drafted into World War II.
At 36, Gromis was the oldest draftee from Pottstown, according to the story. He was drafted at age 35, but celebrated a birthday before his number was called.
Amateur genealogist Pat Hause, a Bristol Township resident, found no military service record for Gromis, though she did for his brother, who was killed in action. She also found that his parents, Samuel Gromis and Susan Strunk, are buried in the East Coventry Mennonite Cemetery in Chester County.
After Gromis died in 1988, his ashes were kept at a Pottstown bar where he was a regular, Balacki said he was told. No one remembers the name of the bar, which has since closed.
At some point in the last decade, Gromis’ ashes were moved into basement storage at the bar, which is where the new owner found them, Balacki said.
The new owner didn’t know what to do with Sparky, so he brought his ashes to the coroner’s office, where they remain.
‘A sweet girl’
For nearly 20 years, Ron Elgart, a private attorney in Falls, was the court-appointed guardian for a woman named Mary Rose Reid.
Reid lived at Woods Services, a residential campus for individuals with severe developmental and physical disabilities in Langhorne and Middletown. She functioned at the level of a 5 year old, which was how old she was when she arrived at Woods.
She spoke only a few words. Mostly, she liked to cut photos out of the magazines that Elgart would bring her when he visited her on well-being checks. Her favorites were People and any food magazines, he said.
“She’d just sit there, very quietly and go through her magazines,” Elgart said. “She was a sweet girl.”
Reid was 76 when she died.
Woods Services notified Elgart. He found a funeral home that agreed to cremate her for practically nothing, which was about what she had left in her trust account, he said.
The funeral director delivered her ashes in the standard square black plastic container. Woods Services had no living relatives in its records.
Elgart spoke with someone at the bank that held Reid’s trust, which gave him the name of a distant relative in New England. He contacted the woman who agreed to accept the remains.
A month or so after he shipped the package, Elgart discovered the box outside the door of his Falls law office. A yellow sticker affixed to it read: Return to Sender.
That was almost 20 years ago.
For most of that time, Elgart kept the unopened box in a storage closet, where he keeps client documents including wills. Every once in a while he’d gently pat the box.
When he has sought advice from other attorneys, they usually just pat him on the shoulder and walk away, Elgart said.
Why has he kept her ashes all these years? The answer comes easily.
“Other than the people at Woods School I’m probably the last person that ever had contact with her.”
Very specific behavior
Why would someone abandon the ashes of a relative?
Temple University’s Farley has theories but he is careful to emphasize they are only theories based on his many years of study of human motivation, emotion and behavior. There is no scientific research on what he called a “highly unusual issue.”
“It’s a very specific behavior that may speak about a quality of a person that should be studied,” he added.
Beyond dysfunctional family dynamics, another reason is perhaps the person simply forgot where they put the ashes.
“It’s possible,” Farley said. “People can forget a bunch of stuff in our complex world.”
Also, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of hanging on to human remains, either. So they opt for the “easy route” and let someone else be responsible for disposing of them.
Farley added that often people will choose to dispose of cremated remains in places that were special to the departed or where they have fond memories of the person, which is not the same as abandoning them in a garage for someone else to deal with.
“It really is almost as personal a decision as you get in life. It really is. The remains are in your hands and are you going to deal with them in a caring way or not,” he said. “There is something deeply spiritual, emotional and psychological about that.”
It was one of the four Flail kids who found Wright while exploring the garage behind the Victorian-era home shortly after the family moved into an apartment there.
Her daughter ran into the apartment where she immediately informed McCarthy Flail of her find.
“DON’T TOUCH THEM.”
Their landlord provided the backstory on Wright’s resting place. John Scheidell said about nine years ago a tenant who owed him months of back rent left suddenly. He thinks her first name might have been Stacy.
Anyway, Stacy, or whatever her name was, left most of her belongings behind including some items in the garage. Among them were the remains of Richard J. Wright.
Scheidell said he sold most of the woman’s belongings to get back some of the money she owed. She never came back or called asking about Wright, he said. He called her, but never got a hold of her.
For the longest time McCarthy Flail and her family knew nothing about their garage guest other than his name and date of cremation, the information on a label of the container containing his ashes.
More personal details were gathered recently from the two dozen mint-condition death certificates they recently found while clearing out the garage, which Scheidell plans to demolish.
The find prompted McCarthy Flail to make a public attempt to find someone who knows Richard or his family. Last month she posted a photo of the box along with the details in Wright’s death certificate on her Facebook page.
The post generated 10 comments, a possible family tree, 81 shares, but no long-lost relatives.
Obviously, McCarthy Flail and her family would love to return Richard to his family. If that never happens, though, no worries.
“Sir Richard Wright will remain on the property,” McCarthy Flail said. “He will forever have a home here.”
Scheidell is already planning a special resting place for Wright in the new garage.
“We would never dispose of Richard,” he said. “That would be sacrilegious.”
Do this if you don’t want to go unclaimed in death
Below is the link to the PennDOT Emergency Contact site where you can complete information listing a Family member that you would like to be notified in case you are rendered unable to speak or deceased.
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com
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