Brad Byrholdt, general manager of Bend Funeral Homes, sits in the mausoleum at Deschutes Memorial Chapel and Gardens in Bend.

Stashed in locked cabinets at mortuaries around Central Oregon are the cremated remains of people lost to those who knew them in life.

Some of them were famous. Others lived a regular life.

For these lost souls, the afterlife is limbo, an urn on a shelf and a notation of basic facts just in case a loved one comes forward to claim them and place them in their final resting place. This spring in Klamath Falls, a group of Knights of Columbus worked to give 143 unclaimed lives a final send-off, a burial at the Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery. The group hoped to encourage other chapters to step up and dedicate a space for the unclaimed, but funeral homes provide a temporary respite in the meantime.

“We make every effort to find a family member,” said Kevin Korn, a licensed funeral home director at Niswonger-Reynolds Funeral Home in Bend. “Invariably, someone comes around and asks for the remains. We can usually track someone down, even if they are estranged, or separated, or a distant relative. Sometimes people will step forward, and we try to meet the family’s need financially.”

Oregon statutes call for a funeral home to hold on to the body of someone who dies without a family to claim them for 10 days. After that, the funeral home can cremate the remains and must keep them for 180 days. Once that time has past, most funeral homes just hang on to the remains.

“Our job is to make the remains, not dispose of them,” said Brad Byrholdt, Bend Funeral Homes general manager. “I won’t bury unclaimed remains because people do come back. Every funeral home has cremated remains that we safe-care in case someone comes back and asks for them.

“And they do.”

Many funeral homes work through the Oregon Department of State Lands to find a relative through property records, Bryholdt said. Sometimes the funeral home will research the person or post a death notice.

“These remains are someone’s somebody,” Bryrholdt said. “We keep the remains in our care because that’s the smartest and safest. We do care what we do, and we don’t want to upset people.”

It is unknown precisely how many of these unclaimed remains exist in Oregon. There’s a state fund to reimburse funeral homes the cost of cremation. With the pandemic, the list is not up to date and the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board hasn’t had an administrator for a few months. There’s a backlog currently in the process.

The Knights of Columbus work

Joseph Schaecher, one of the men who helped gather the unclaimed remains in Southern Oregon, said the idea to bury the unclaimed started to take root in 2017. At the end of the 2020 Oregon State Knights of Columbus convention, the idea took shape: Various councils would contact their local funeral homes and obtain any unclaimed remains to be buried in a designated area at the Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery.

The remains were cataloged. Photos were taken. And each was placed in a tube for easy removal should a family member claim them, said Schaecher, who is a district deputy for region 9, Grants Pass to Ashland. Schaecher collected 66 remains from a Medford funeral home that had been in storage for more than 10 years. The balance came from Klamath, he said.

One of the unclaimed remains had a note attached that said to save the remains for a daughter who never came.

Two urns found in a forest and returned to the mortuary were unclaimed. Another was a veteran, who the Knights gave a full military service with taps and a color guard.

And yet another had been in storage since 1964 in Medford.

All these and others that were received were transferred for burial, Schaecher said.

“They all had names but two,” Schaecher said. “They were in limbo. It was a really wonderful experience. I got kind of emotional.”

The Knights hope to do this program again, Schaecher said.

State program helps pay

for unclaimed

The Oregon Indigent Disposition Program was created in 1993 and is funded by the Legislature. Typically, the funding for unclaimed remains falls on the county. The fund pays for the disposition of a body for someone who doesn’t have a relative or someone with a legal right to claim a deceased person’s body, according to the law.

Every effort needs to be taken to find a relative or someone who has the legal authority over the deceased person’s body, including social media, genealogy websites, people-search sites or a newspaper notice. The funeral homes are reimbursed by the state.

“When someone dies, it’s an involved program with a lot of layers,” said Wally Ordeman, Oregon Funeral Directors Association. “When someone dies without a county morgue, the body goes to a mortuary. The funeral homes typically rotate for medical examiner calls.”

Funeral homes provide this service for their communities, but it can be awkward, said Ordeman, a fifth-generation funeral business owner.

“The funeral homes are almost forced to take on the responsibility of holding onto the remains.”

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