Transport Airports

Airports Are Puzzled Over What to Do with Unclaimed Cremations

Oct 20, 2013 7:00 am

Skift Take

Unclaimed cremations are not very common. But when they do show up, the decision over what to do can extend beyond regulations to employees’ personal jurisdiction.

— Samantha Shankman

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The lost-and-found items at Indianapolis International Airport are all over the place — sunglasses, paperback books with Fabio on the cover, a mint julep cup with the names of the Kentucky Derby winners since 1875 — and it all gets shunted away into a closet under the main stairway.

There it gathers dust and is forgotten.

One item, however, airport staffers haven’t forgotten, can’t forget. It’s a cardboard box the size of toaster. It weighs maybe seven pounds. Someone has written on it “PERCY COLVIN,” and in fact, the box’s contents would appear to be Mr. Colvin — his earthly remains, his ashes, a fine gray powder.

The ashes, or cremains, were left behind in the terminal’s lower level, near baggage claim — in 2010. Somebody turned them in to airport officials, who at first placed them in the lost-and-found but soon transferred them to the security of the airport police department’s evidence room. They figured someone would come forward to claim the ashes. But three years later, nobody has.

First the airport police and then an airport attorney tried to get to the bottom of it by calling the funeral home that handled the arrangements, and the church where the funeral was held. Nothing came of it. They called the Marion County coroner, but Mr. Colvin was not a “coroner’s case,” meaning foul play had not been suspected (the death certificate says Mr. Colvin died of lung cancer), and so the coroner’s staffers could only shrug.

“Maybe it was decedent’s last wish to stay in the airport, or travel the world,” chief deputy coroner Alfarena Ballew told The Indianapolis Star. “You know how people have those wishes to have ashes spread out in the ocean or something. Or maybe the family was attempting to take him home.”

Mr. Colvin, according to his death certificate, was born, in 1938, in Romulus, Ala., in rural Tuscaloosa County. It is unclear when he moved to Indianapolis, but he may well have been part of the Great Migration, the mostly post-World War II movement of some 7 million blacks from the rural south to northern U.S. cities. Mr. Colvin worked as a machinist, according to his death certificate. He was widowed. He had at least two children. They declined to comment for this story.

And so what exactly Mr. Colvin’s cremains were doing near the airport’s baggage claim in 2010 remains a mystery.

It’s possible that in a post-9/11 world with sometimes confusing rules over what a person can and can’t bring onto an airplane there was a mix-up at an airport checkpoint, and Mr. Colvin’s cremains were abandoned in a panic, or accidentally. Several years ago at the Indianapolis airport a man attempting to bring his father’s ashes onto a plane created a major stir — after the man had been waived through a checkpoint, a Transportation Security Administration officer had second thoughts and tried to find him, couldn’t find him and so sounded the alarm: 500 people were evacuated and eight flights delayed.

(Some airlines don’t allow cremains as carry-on. The TSA allows cremains, but with conditions: “If the container is made of a material that generates an opaque image, the Transportation Security Officer will not be able to clearly determine what is inside the container and the container will not be permitted.”)

Unclaimed cremains aren’t that uncommon. There are laws governing them — in Indiana, funeral homes must hold cremains 60 days before disposing of them but typically hold them much longer (“Funeral directors are loathe to get rid of ashes,” said Curtis Rostad, executive director of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association, “out of, I’d suppose, respect, and the thought that someday someone might show up and want those ashes back.”).

In the cramped basement of the Marion County Coroner’s office on McCarty Street is a metal file cabinet containing the ashes of 49 people, unclaimed. On the cabinet’s door is taped a sheet of paper (“Decedents Cremations Storage List as of 9-30-2013″) that gives the names of the people (including someone with the first name of Christ) and tells whether they’re on “Shelf One” or “Shelf Two.” Shelf Two bends under the weight of 27 boxes of cremains.

Ballew nods toward the straining Shelf Two and says, “I don’t want to have an event here.” She is working with IUPUI professor Kenna Quinet on formulating a proper and dignified cremains exit strategy.

“How long do we hold (the cremains)?” Ballew said. “Do we bury them all together, in one spot? We need to get some guidelines. We are going to put together a policy where they’d all get a proper burial.”

For now Ballew and Quinet are trying to learn more about the circumstances that led each person’s remains into administrative limbo in a municipal basement.

What they know so far: “A lot of them are just old people who’ve been distant from their family,” said Ballew. “We contact families, and we’ve had families say, ‘We weren’t close, we don’t want anything to do with them.’ And in some cases the concerns are financial: ‘We can’t afford to do it.’”

To bury cremains in a cemetery requires a piece of ground, an urn and a vault — “you’re talking a couple thousand dollars,” said Mike Patterson, of Washington Park North Cemetery, where Mr. Colvin was to be buried, according to his obituary.

But there’s nothing that says you have to bury cremains. It’s perfectly legal to hang on to them indefinitely at no cost, or (in Indiana, anyway) to scatter them in a special place, also at no cost. Some states restrict ash scattering, but here it’s wide open.

State park? No problem. Lake, river, creek? Fine.

Mr. Colvin had two daughters who, reached by phone, both expressed surprise to learn their father’s ashes were in the police evidence room at the Indianapolis airport. Neither would speculate on how that came to be.

Mr. Colvin was living in a low-income apartment building at the time of his death. He was living rent-free, thanks to one of his daughters, Elizabeth Graves, an investigation by law enforcement personnel later determined.

Graves managed the building and other apartments for the nonprofit Westside Community Development Corp. In February 2010 she pleaded guilty to corrupt business influence and theft after being charged with embezzling $150,000 in rent payments and other money from residents. She drew a three-year prison term. She was ordered to pay back some of the money and, having been released from prison, is doing so, said a Westside Community Development Corp. staffer.

Airport officials report they’ve begun arranging a handover to Mr. Colvin’s survivors.

Copyright (2013) Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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