Washington funeral director hopes website connects families with cremated remains of loved ones
The silent but stubborn urging of a former school teacher and her quiet neighbors proved to be more than a Washington County funeral director could continue to ignore.
After years of contemplation, Michael Neal recently opened www.ForgottenAshes.com, an online registry of unclaimed cremated remains — also known as cremains — in the possession of funeral homes, coroners and other agencies.
“It's like every other problem,” said Neal, a second-generation funeral home director. “If you don't address it, it's only going to get worse.”
Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne opened North America's first crematory on Washington's Gallows Hill, now South Main Street, in 1876. The small brick building stands about two miles from William G. Neal Funeral Home on Allison Street, and Michael Neal said he grew up knowing the local connection to the burgeoning cremation industry.
Cremations were performed after 6 percent of U.S. deaths in 1975, according to the Cremation Association of North America. That number grew to 34 percent in 2006 and is expected to top 50 percent by 2025.
That increased popularity comes with a downside — unclaimed cremains. There is no official count of how many cremated remains sit unclaimed around the country, but some estimates put the figure in the tens of thousands.
The Missing in America Project, which searches for deceased military veterans, uncovered nearly 8,000 unclaimed remains, including those of 2,000 veterans, after searching about 1,500 of the more than 20,000 funeral homes.
Neal's funeral home houses three — Rhoda Scoville, a Cleveland-born school teacher; Andrew Tobias, originally from Poland; and Elizabeth Gould, a Pittsburgh native. All three died in 1987, and a Washington County judge ordered Neal's funeral home to cremate their bodies.
“The family did not pick them up, and there were no instructions on what to do,” Neal said. “Rather than bury the ashes in an unmarked grave, we as a funeral home have elected to safeguard the ashes in hopes a family member will come forward.”
Information on the three is listed on ForgottenAshes.com, though the website is a personal endeavor, not a function of Neal's funeral home.
“It's not a business venture. I'm not making any money,” Neal said. “I'm just trying to solve a problem.”
He has registered several funeral homes in Pennsylvania on the website as well as ones from other states. This week, he added six firms in Australia to begin posting.
Neal's fledgling registry, notably, contains listings from the Oregon State Hospital Replacement Project. State hospital workers have information on the nearly 3,500 unclaimed cremains still in their possession. Though the project has its own online registry, organizers jumped at the chance to work with Neal when he approached them.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to reach people through a different avenue,” said Jodie Jones, administrator of the project. “People searching genealogy might not think to check a mental hospital's site.”
Neal said he, too, was surprised to discover no one had started such a site before him.
“We're trying to just connect the dots,” Neal said. “I think in time it will take on a life of its own.”
An obstacle will be getting funeral homes and others in possession of unclaimed remains to get over the stigma of advertising the fact that they have them, he said.
“Most funeral home directors are reluctant to list on the site because they don't want to show they have a large inventory of unclaimed remains,” Neal said.
Because of that, users are allowed to post information blindly, meaning that visitors cannot see who is in possession of the remains but can still connect with the funeral home or agency.
“I'm trying to make a difference,” Neal said. In addition to the Oregon project, funeral homes and organizations in Washington, New Jersey, Delaware, Utah, and Melbourne, Australia, are in the process of adding inventories to the website.
Having such a registry could prove useful, said Harry Neel, chief executive officer of Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home in Pleasant Hills.
Though his funeral home has no unclaimed remains, it has in the past, Neel said. His father bought a Homestead funeral home in the 1960s and discovered a dozen unclaimed cremated remains in the basement.
They were buried in the cemetery owned by the funeral home.
“Nobody has ever come forward to claim them, as far as I know,” Neel said.
Years ago, someone mailed an urn to his funeral home to be buried. No payment ever followed, so the remains were kept in the cemetery vault. A woman contacted the funeral home a decade ago looking for her great-great-grandmother's whereabouts.
“I took a chance and went down to look in the vault. And, by golly, there she was,” said Neel, who returned the remains to the family.
Should a similar situation arise in the future, ForgottenAshes.com could be a helpful resource, he said.
“It's really kind of a nice thing,” Neel said. “Most people take care of (cremated remains), but it's that 1 percent that doesn't.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.