We Asked an Undertaker Why He Keeps Strangers’ Unclaimed Ashes for Decades
Lawrence Shrader definitely has more dead people in his basement than you do.
Not Lawrence Shrader's basement. Probably no dead people down there either? Photo via Flickr user Orin Zebest
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Lawrence Shrader has at least 60 dead people in his basement, but don't let that freak you out. He's not the only one. In fact, if you own a funeral home, like Shrader does, chances are you've got somewhere in the same ballpark of dead. The 60 boxes of cremains—a fancy term for cremated, pulverized bone fragments—in the basement of his Kamloops funeral home are a fraction of the more than two million containers that sit unclaimed in funeral homes across North America.
Depending on your perspective, unclaimed ashes are either a rich human mystery waiting to be solved, or proof that someone was definitely an asshole. Larger funeral home franchises often dispose of unclaimed cremains ("in, for lack of a better word, a mass grave," says Shrader) after a year. But the smaller, family businesses like Shrader's tend to take a more active role in finding the ashes' rightful home.
VICE reached out to Shrader to talk about life, death, weird funeral arrangements, and his most recent, er, undertaking: reuniting some of those boxes with the living people who knew them.
VICE: How long have you been in the funeral industry?
Lawrence Shrader: Well, I've been around it since I was five years old. So, 44 years. I grew up in my grandpa's funeral home in Smithers, BC. And I started working in the business when I was a teenager—about 15-years-old. I helped out my grandpa and my dad, but I didn't think it was really for me. I moved to Vancouver for two years, and started working with the coroner's service, and that gave me an interest in pursuing my apprenticeship. Then, about 11 years ago, my brother and I bought Kamloops Funeral Home.
Obviously, cremations are a big part of your business. I understand unclaimed ashes are something of an epidemic in North America. Is that common? Are there instances where people have a family member cremated, and then never come back for them?
It happens quite a bit. I know that at my dad's funeral home, there are still some from 1970 sitting there. I've got at least 60 right now. It's a fair amount. We've actually been working on trying to contact people to pick them up. And we've had some success. But we still have quite a few. We had more than 90 at the beginning of this year. My wife works here, too, and she undertook this campaign about six months ago, of trying to contact people, and since she started doing that, we've probably gotten rid of 30 or so.
Wow. So, they just stay there indefinitely? There's no time-limit on how long you have to keep them?
That's generally what's done, yeah. Legally, after a year, we can run an ad asking for somebody to pick them up. Give them a bit of time—usually a month. Then we can bury them in—for lack of a better word—a mass grave. They all get buried together in one big plot. But it's pretty rare that that happens. I've never done it. We just hang onto them indefinitely. The big corporations will do it, but we don't want to do that to people. Because people come back eventually. I had one instance where somebody came and got them 10 years later. I never got a reason why.
Are there ever instances where you did get a reason? Maybe that they were just a jerk who nobody liked? Why would someone do something like that?
Often it's stuff like someone thought their brother picked up the remains years ago. They didn't realize they were still there. You get a lot of that kind of thing. Somebody else was supposed to take care of it and never followed through. Nowadays people are all over the place. It's not like the old days, when you were born, raised, and died in the same town. It doesn't happen like that. I think that's part of it. Families are much more scattered.
In a lot of cases, with elderly people, one person will pass away, and then the other person will pass away, and the family wouldn't even know that the cremated remains are here. And we wouldn't necessarily know how to get in touch. If someone says: "I'll pick them up in the spring," and then something happened, and it's a couple of years later, we wouldn't necessarily know to tell them. We wouldn't know to notify the family when they come to pick up mum, that dad's cremated remains are still here.
Any idea how common this sort of thing is? I mean, in other provinces or cities?
Well, I'd be speculating here, but I'd wager it is. I know some places strictly enforce that you have to take them. I know of a franchise that does that; they require you to take them when you get the death certificate. It's not really a good policy. We get a lot of people, who aren't comfortable having them at home. And they'll say: 'Can we leave them with you until the spring?' And we don't want to say no to that sort of stuff.
With 40+ years in the business, I take it you've seen a lot of funerals. Has anyone ever made any really weird requests?
I once had a motorcycle take the casket to the cemetery. They built a little trailer for it and drove it down. I thought that was pretty awesome, actually. A lot of people want to be cremated with unusual things. Booze is pretty common. You can pretty much be cremated with anything—except for something explosive. That's happened before; people put a few shotgun shells in a hunter's pocket. We really frown on that at the crematorium. Booze is big. Marijuana is pretty common.
Really? People specifically ask to be cremated with weed?
Yeah. And we don't want to say no to that. What's the harm? It's just going to get burned-up anyway.
Jesse Donaldson is a Vancouver-based writer.