Nfld. & Labrador

Funeral home owner wants new legislation over unclaimed cremated remains

Funeral homes in Newfoundland and Labrador are storing more cremated remains left behind by families than they care to admit, according to one funeral home owner who wants to see  a change in provincial regulations.

'It's enough for me to take a very active role in creating the legislation,' says Geoff Carnell

Geoff Carnell, of Carnell's Funeral Home, says he wants to have an active role in helping create legislation for the disposing of cremated remains after they go unclaimed after a certain period of time. (Bailey White/CBC)

Funeral homes in Newfoundland and Labrador are storing more cremated remains left behind by families than they care to admit, and one funeral home owner wants to see a change in provincial regulations.

Geoff Carnell, of Carnell's Funeral Home in St. John's, wouldn't say how many cremated remains have been abandoned at his business, but he did say it's definitely a problem.

"It's enough for me to want to talk about this issue, and it's enough for me to take a very active role in creating the legislation that we need to deal with the issue," Carnell said.

"Even if I have one, it's important enough for that family — and for those families that are going to follow — that they have the knowledge they need to know that there's better ways of dealing with this."

While Carnell hasn't checked how long he has held onto remains, he said it can range anywhere between several months, to years.

Ironically, in the minds of family members, their loved one is in a safe place. They're in a funeral home.- Geoff Carnell

A similar problem was unveiled in Nova Scotia, where CBC News reported that more than 700 cremated remains sit on shelves in funeral homes across that province, unclaimed by their families.

Service Nova Scotia had sent a survey to funeral homes in October, saying it was considering regulations about what to do with unclaimed remains after being contacted by funeral professionals. 

Such regulations currently do not exist in Newfoundland and Labrador, nor do they exist in the rest of Atlantic Canada.

"That's not uncommon for the rest of the country as well," Carnell said.

Carnell wouldn't say how many cremated remains are currently in the possession of his funeral home, but he said there's enough to make him want to speak about the issue. (Bailey White/CBC)

"Once the time stretches it becomes much more difficult to engage families again, or re-engage families if you wish to do so."

In an email to CBC News, Service NL said when amendments are next considered for the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Act that the issue will be considered. 

"Service NL is always open to discussions with stakeholders to improve industry standards," a spokesperson for the department said.

Service fees

Carnell said dealing with the loss of a loved one is a very difficult time for families, and they are comforted by the fact that the cremated remains are being stored professionally, and appropriately.

However, after a while, Carnell said, some families go on with their lives and overlook the fact that the remains need to be dealt with.

But funeral homes don't hold onto the ashes for free.

"Some charge upfront fees, storage fees. We like to charge a modest monthly fee so that you're continually in touch with the family," Carnell told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

Carnell says most funeral homes charge a fee to house cremated remains. (Bailey White/CBC)

"That's the important thing. Once you lose that communication line then everything starts to be overlooked. Ironically, in the minds of family members, their loved one is in a safe place. They're in a funeral home. They're being well taken care of."

Carnell said families are then able to walk away, leaving the funeral home with the problem of what to do with the ashes.

One exception was when there was a fire at the Carnell's home in April 2018, prompting some families to contact Carnell to ensure their family members' remains were still safe and accounted for.

Legislation

Carnell wants the entire cremation process to be regulated, from start to finish.

Most importantly, he wants to be allowed to dispose of unclaimed remains after a certain period of time, something he said is a common practice in other parts of North America.

"A common grave is purchased. ... a vault of some sort is placed in the common grave and several urns are placed in that vault," Carnell said.

"In the event that a family decides to come back, we know where their loved one's cremated remains are."

That's not a possibility; without changes to the legislation, cemeteries won't allow for a common grave to be purchased for this purpose.

For now, Carnell said, there are two options to avoid remains being left unclaimed: having last will and testament — regardless of age — and pre-planning a funeral.

"You can direct in your will, and your pre-plan how you would like the final disposition to occur." 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Bailey White

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