No criminal investigation in Athens cremains stash

ATHENS, MICH. - Families are being notified about more than three dozen unclaimed cremated remains found in a closed funeral home.

But officials said the discovery is not a surprise and police said there is no criminal investigation underway.

Thirty-seven boxes of cremains were given to Calhoun County Medical Examiner Dr. Joyce deJong by the family of Joy Spencer.

RelatedMedical examiner: 37 sets of cremains found in storage unit

Spencer, 75, died Oct. 14 and was the daughter of Paul Spencer, the founder of Spencer Funeral Home at 310 S. Capital Ave. in Athens.

The funeral home was sold in a bankruptcy auction in November 2015 to Tate Goodwin, owner of Lighthouse Funeral and Cremation Service.

Goodwin said in a statement that after Joy Spencer died, her family delivered the stored cremains which had not been claimed by family members before the sale of the building.

Dr. Joyce deJong has begun a process of identifying the ashes and trying to contact family members.

The Michigan State Police, Calhoun County Sheriff Department and the Tribal Police all said Friday they are not conducting a criminal investigation.

And Phil Douma, executive director of the 500-member Michigan Funeral Directors Association, said Friday that probably every one of the 750 funeral homes in Michigan has unclaimed remains.

"It is permissive to keep them and there is no ethical or legal issue with that," he said.

Douma said funeral homes retain the cremains because families can't decide who should have them or surviving families live far from the funeral home or they are in denial about the death.

He said cost is never an issue because a funeral home cannot keep the remains from anyone who has the lawful right to possess them even if the funeral bill is unpaid.

"They have a right to have them," he said.

But often families just don't claim the cremains and until a new law was passed in 2010 the funeral homes had an obligation to keep the ashes.

Now the funeral home can notify the family after six months and if the remains are not collected in another 30 days, the funeral home can properly bury or entomb them. But it is at the funeral home's expense, Douma said.

Craig Kempf, who has funeral homes in Marshall, Battle Creek, Homer and Bellevue, said he has 10 urns with cremains. The oldest is from 1946, from the funeral home he inherited from his uncle.

He said staff send letters to family to remind them the funeral home still is holding the ashes at the funeral home but if they are not collected, Kempf said, "I am responsible for these."

When he retires, Kempf said he plans to buy a cemetery plot and headstone and properly bury them. Until then they are in a special cabinet in a secure room.

"Everybody does have some cremains that they hold," Kempf said. "We have changed the procedures that we don't have to keep them but it is not unusual for them to have some unclaimed cremated remains.

"Sometimes people don't care," he said. "I know the families but they just don't come back."

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© 2017, Battle Creek Enquirer


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