Burnt and abandoned - Families fail to collect urns with remains of their 'loved ones'
Ryon Jones, Staff Reporter
While cremations have increased in popularity over the years in Jamaica, scores of persons are abandoning the ashes of their loved ones in the funeral homes.
Recent checks show Jamaicans opting for cremations for roughly half of their dead but not everyone who puts the bodies through this process opts to return to collect the urn with the ashes.
"We have cremated remains here from decades ago not collected," Gordon Chuck, owner of the funeral directors and crematorium company Sam Isaacs & Sons told The Sunday Gleaner.
"We have approximately 200 urns dating back to the '70s. We have them because I would find it very difficult to discard them, so we just have them in storage.
From a moral and ethical standpoint, I wouldn't really see myself just disposing of them, because one of them (family members) may come back," added Chuck as he argued that it is difficult to safeguard against this type of practice with the funeral home industry yet to be regulated.
"There are no laws specifically to deal with situations like these. In the United States, what they do is that if the urns are not collected after a certain period of time, they are placed in a vault and, if and when the family member does come back to claim, they have to pay to get the cremated remains out of the vault. But we don't have a set-up like that. We just basically keep until collected."
Persons who do not collect their family members' remains have been putting a strain on Sam Isaacs & Sons, because additional space has to be found for storing the urns.
"It takes up space and there is an overall cost because you have to monitor, secure, and keep moisture away. It is somewhat of a strain, but it is what it is. We have them and we just have to expand every few years," said Chuck.
Owner of the country's oldest funeral home and crematorium operators, Ferdinand Madden Jr, said steps have had to be taken to enable his company, Madden's Funeral Home and Crematorium, to get rid of uncollected ashes.
"We have a cremation agreement, so there is a form which says if you don't collect it within a certain time, it is disposed of. We give them up to six months to come back," said Madden.
Quite a few people don't turn up to collect the ashes, so there is a garden at the side of the property that we use to dispose of it," added Madden.
President of the Funeral Directors Association of Jamaica, Melvin Honeyghan, whose funeral home and crematorium is located in Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, has had his fair share of persons who have just abandoned the remains of their family members.
"I have gone about two years now in the system and I am sure I have more than 20 people who didn't [return for] the remains," said Honeyghan.
"It could be much more than 20, but I just use that figure. The persons say they don't have any interest in it. The first thing you do as a professional when you are doing a cremation is ask the person, 'What are you going to do with the remains after cremation?'
"Everybody does business in a different manner, but you must be sure what they are going to do with the remains before you take it from them."
With this in mind, Honeyghan has also employed the strategy of having persons sign documents granting permission for their family members' ashes to be disposed of if it is not collected within a certain time frame.
"Outside of that, you find that if they don't want it back and they just tell you that they don't want it back, you cannot dispose of it because they can come back and say they never told you to do it," said Honeyghan.
"So I put a mechanism in place where I say, 'you need to collect today or tomorrow, or if you have no interest in the remains, you have to sign a document saying you have no interest in it and you're giving us permission to dispose of the remains'. Based on having a cemetery, we can dispose of it on the cemetery grounds."
There are only four recognised crematoriums in Jamaica, with Madden having two - one in St James and one at Dovecot; Sam Isaacs which has one in Shooters Hill and Honeyghan's.
The numerous other funeral homes contract out cremation jobs to the three major players in the business.
"So, now, if the funeral home brings it (a cremation job) to you, you have to ensure from the funeral home that if they don't want back the remains, they must get a certified letter from the family signed by a JP (justice of the peace) declaring what is to happen to the remains," said Honeyghan.
"Now, if the person only comes and says to you that 'I am not taking back these remains today', you are stuck with it, because legally you can't do anything with it."