I am often asked what the hardest thing is about being a funeral director.  Some people imagine that being around sorrow and grief must be very difficult to do on a daily basis; others assume that helping a family through the loss of a young child would be the worst.

Yes, being around so much sorrow can be difficult sometimes and all the training in the world could never teach my heart how not to break for the families of a lost child.  But there are other things about being a funeral director that are also hard and that few people ever see — the other “things” I am referring to are the remains of people who have been cremated and left unclaimed by their families, now occupying the corner of my storage room, along with the corner of my mind.

I’m certainly not one to pass judgement on anybody.  There are a multitude of reasons why this happens: one sybling assumes the other took care of it; the deceased had no surviving relatives; families delay until they can agree on what to do with the remains; and occasionally, some people never reach the point of being able to fully deal with their loss.

From a legal perspective, Illinois only requires that the unclaimed remains be retained for 60 days before disposition, but I personally cannot dispose of someone’s ashes knowing that one day a relative or friend might walk into my funeral home asking after their loved one’s remains.   And even if no such person existed,  my professional and personal beliefs still compell me to honor the deceased in a more dignified manner.

There is not too much I can do in those cases where there are no surviving friends or relatives; or where a family has unintentionally let the situation get past them.  However, for those who have chosen to leave your loved one’s remains behind either because it is too hard to bear or because you do not think it matters, I would like to share with you something interesting I recently heard:  One of the top 10 remarks that doctors hear from their patients is, “I didn’t now how much pain I was in until it stopped hurting.”

I have seen the miracle of what final closure brings to an individual and to a family and I can tell you that many of these people did not know how much pain they were in until they took that final step in the healing process.  I might even go so far as to say that by claiming their loved one’s remains, they seemed to be reclaiming a bit of themselves.

I am not always told what plans people have for their loved one’s remains after they finally come to collect them; but I do know that an urn of ashes buried in the ground, scattered in the wind or sitting on my shelf is not a logistical issue.  It’s a psychological, spiritual, and emotional one…