Search for families to claim cremated remains from closed Athens funeral home underway

KALAMAZOO, MICH. - Calhoun County's medical examiner has resolved more than a half-dozen cases of cremated remains recovered from an Athens funeral home but still has 30 more.

"We are still locating families and we are going methodically," said Joanne Catania, chief investigator for Medical Examiner Dr. Joyce deJong said. "Everyday we find one or two."

She said Friday between seven and eight cases have been resolved by finding relatives of the deceased or by determining there are no family members.

Catania is trying to identify 37 cremated remains from the former Spencer Funeral Home at 310 S. Capital Ave. in Athens given to the ME's office.

The ashes were turned over to Tate Goodwin by the family of Joy Spencer, after her death Oct. 14.

Goodwin, who owns Lighthouse Funeral and Cremation in Union City, purchased the Spencer Funeral Home in a bankruptcy auction in November 2015.

When Joy Spencer died, family members brought the ashes to Tate, he said. They had not been reclaimed and kept at another site away from the Athens funeral home.

Tate said he did not find any cremated remains in the building as he has been preparing it for demolition and replacement with an event hall for funeral services and other special occasions. Few records were recovered.

After receiving the ashes he asked deJong, whose office is at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine in Kalamazoo, to identify the remains and search for any family.

"Usually the unclaimed cremains stay with the funeral home," Catania said, "but they felt like they didn't know what to do with them and we felt it was the right thing to do."

deJong said last week her office had begun the process of identifying and if possible returning the cremated remains to family.

Catania said she had identified some and found and notified family or closed the case by determining there is no family.

It will be several more weeks to complete all the investigations, she said.

"It's a lot because you are starting with just a nibble and it takes you here and there," she said. "The road has a lot of twists and turns."

Each box of ashes is only marked with a name, although some also have a date of birth and date of death.

A death certificate and cremation permits can be two solid pieces of information but often are only the first steps to finding next of kin.

"I am pulling out all kinds of investigative possibilities," she said. "I am trying to be imaginative and deciding where you can find other sources of information."

She just received a number of death certificates from the Calhoun County clerk but said the investigations are hampered because at least one of the cremated remains is from the 1980s and so far two are from Texas.

Phil Douma, executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association told the Enquirer last week that families don't claim cremated remains for a number of reasons. Sometimes it's an indecision on who should have them, or families live far from the funeral home or they are in denial about the death.

But Douma said cost should not be a factor because funeral homes can't legally keep the ashes from anyone who has the lawful right to possess them even if the funeral bill is unpaid.

Catania said one military veteran will be interred next week at Fort Custer National Cemetery and plans are for some unclaimed remains to be interred at cemetery at a Kalamazoo church which has taken indigent cremated remains.

"There is a prayer service for every set of cremains," Catania said.

© 2017 Battle Creek Enquirer


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