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7 Unexpected Places Cremated Remains Have Turned Up

Nov 08, 2022

If you’ve worked in the funeral profession for any length of time, chances are you are already well aware that cremation rates have surpassed burial rates. Despite the headline that hint at this being a surprising or unanticipated phenomenon, the fact is funeral professionals have observed this gradual shift for decades. While we know with certainly that more than half of families are choosing cremation for their loved one, the statistics become much murkier when trying to determine how many of those cremated remains are interred or scattered and how many end up on a shelf waiting for their eventual final resting place.

There is a reason I don’t use the words “forgotten on a shelf’ and it is because I know firsthand there is sometimes this assumption that those who do not bury or scatter the ashes of a loved one immediately following their death are someone unfeeling or apathetic. The reality is often the opposite – many families struggle to decide what to do with cremated remain and end up in a stalemate, either with other family members or with their own conflicting feelings. It is for this reason I believe cremated remains sometimes end up in unexpected places, not because loved ones don’t care but because they care too much.

In other situations, the deceased might only be survived by distant relativesthat intentionally or unintentionally allow cremated remains to remain in a state of limbo. Your first thought might be of the homeless and indigent population, but this can even happen to famous and renowned figures. Take a few minutes to read the New Yorker peice, “The Improbable Journey of Dorothy Parker’s Ashes”, the story of the well-known flapper era socialite/writer whose cremains spent two decades in a filing cabinet and another three in a forgotten grave adjacent to a parking lot. The perplexing tale of how this came to happen involves a bitter executrix who was angry she was not left anything in Dorothy's will and, in later years, indecision and ambivalence on the part of those who ended up in possession of the famed writer's ashes.

The reasons why cremated remains sometimes turn up in strange places are varied and complicated. For this piece we ask that you reserve any judgements surrounding the how and join us in just marveling how incredible and unbelievable these stories are. One of the common threads we notice is how when a person unexpectedly discovers another person’s cremated remains, they are very often driven to do all they can to reunite them with their next of kin. Over the past 10+ years covering funeral-related stories, we have seen this scenario retold in article after article. Tales of folks who exert a great deal of time and effort trying to ensure a stranger’s ashes are returned to where they belong. It is a moving reminder of the common threads that unite us as human beings and how most people are really good at heart.

From floating along the ocean shore to causing a commotion at a department store, here are 7 unexpected places where cremated remains have been discovered.


1. Inside a Floating Bottle

The image of a message in a floating bottle has come to symbolize adventures on the high seas. For some families, this makes it a perfect vessel to send off a loved one who wanted to be free and travel. Over the past decade, at least four different families have intentionally chosen to inurn their loved one’s cremated remains in a sealed bottle and send it sailing on the ocean waves. In all of these stories, the bottle contained a few dollar bills and a message to anyone that finds it. The message will usually include some details about the person who died, a phone number or email to contact the family to share where the bottle ended up, and instructions to send it back out to sea again.

Wife Sends Travel-Loving Husband's Ashes In A Bottle Around The Florida Coast
Woman’s Cremated Ashes Found Inside ‘Message in a Bottle’ in Destin
Message in a Bottle with Husband's Ashes Travels from Florida to Spain

The details are so similar you have to assume these families must have been inspired reading each other stories and decided to do the same thing for their loved one. (Or perhaps, the person told their next of kin,“When I die, do this for me!”).It is certainly a unique way some families have chosen to say goodbye that can result in an unexpected surprise for a stranger. We especially love that in every example the person who found the bottle was delighted to have found it and more than happy to oblige the request.


2. On the Shelf of a Second-Hand Store

Picture an urn. Most likely, in your head you are seeing a metal oval-shaped cylinder or a wooden box. This is what most people tend to think of when they imagine a receptacle for cremated remains. However, just about any container can and probably has been used as an urn. This is why keeping ashes permanently in a home can cause problems as it can be difficult to tell the difference between an urn and keepsake. If someone died without telling someone else that they were in possession of an urn, the likelihood of those cremated remains showing up in a donation box increases greatly.

Over the years, we have lost count of the number of stories we have read about cremated remains turning up in Goodwill and other second-hand shops. In some cases, employees will stumble upon them when sorting donations and in others, a customer might accidently purchase something not realizing it contains cremated remains until they bring it home. That’s exactly what happened to Anita Minks who purchased a glass globe from a Goodwill store in Missouri only to discover the cremated remains and photo of a woman inside. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending thanks to the power of social media. Anita’s daughter took a photo and shared it online. It turned out that the globe was among items that had been stolen from the family and they were incredibly happy to have it back in their possession.

“I know they took time out of their day to do the right thing,” shared the woman’s daughter in an article for the Washington Post. “They took another person’s feelings into account, and that’s awesome. You really don’t see that nowadays. I’m so grateful for those people.”


3. Within the Rubble of a Wildfire

While most of this list is filled with examples of someone finding cremated remains unexpectedly, this one is a little different. For families who have lost their home in a wildfire, recovering from such a devastating event can be so difficult. Imagine losing your home and everything you own? Now, imagine that on top of that, also losing the cremated remains of someone you love. Thankfully, with the help of trained dogs and compassionate archeologists, many families have been able to recover the cremated remains of their loved ones amid wildfire destruction.

Canine forensics have long been used to help located people who are missing and presumed dead but the use of dogs for cremains recovery is a fairly new practice pioneered by Archeologist Alex DeGeorgey and his team of volunteers at the Alta Heritage Foundation. This organization has provided closure and peace of mind to hundreds of families who have lost their loved one’s urn in a wildfire. While it may seem implausible that a dog could distinguish one type of ashes from another, their abilities have been proven indisputably time and again. Along with the cremated remains, the team will very often find the medallion that came from the crematory so there is no question. They also combine the dog’s detection skills with archeology practices that help the team separate the human cremains from other debris.

According to an article published by PBS, “DeGeorgey and his colleagues are able to accomplish this feat through a mix of applied archaeology and canine olfaction science. His group brings dogs trained for human remains detection to wildfire sites, where they identify the approximate location of lost cremains—as human ashes are often called—by their scent. Then the archaeologists move in, using tried-and-true techniques to excavate the area and attempt to recover a homeowner’s loved one. It’s work, he’s discovered, that reveals hidden emotional stakes in already tragic wildfire seasons and truths about how Americans reckon with death.”


4. Inside a Storage Unit

If you’ve ever watched the TV show storage wars, you might already be aware of the fact that repossessed storage units are often auctioned off to the highest bidder. The hope is that what you find inside the storage space will be worth more than what you bid. However, in some case, would-be treasure hunters get more than they bargained for when they inadvertently purchase a storage unit that has previous ties to a funeral home. It’s an unfortunate fact that funeral homes all across the country have issues with unclaimed ashes. Families sometimes for various reasons chose not to ever take possession of their loved one’s remains. As a result of this, through no fault of their own, funeral professionals end up retaining these cremated remains for long lengths of time and, in some sad cases, they end up forgotten in a storage unit. We found examples of this occurring as recently as one month ago and as long ago as 12 years ago so there is really no telling how many other storage units out there might contain cremated remains.


5. At a Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is known for selling everything, but one item discovered on a shelf last month definitely threw both shoppers and employees for a loop. Amongst the ceramics for sale in the arts and crafts section of a store in McKinney, TX, a shopper found that one of the ceramic containers held cremains and on the back the words ‘mom’s ashes’ were written down. The employees of the Wal-Mart believe that someone must have wanted to buy a new container and set the old one down on the shelf by mistake, although it has not been possible to confirm if this is the case since the owner has not yet been located despite the story receiving national attention. We hope to see a happy end to this story as we find it hard to believe anyone would want a Wal-Mart to be their loved one’s final resting place.


6. On Sale at a Public Auction

When a celebrity or renowned figure dies (or comes into financial hardship), it is not uncommon for items belonging to them to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Over the years, many have scoffed at those willing to spend thousands to buy a celebrity’s chewed gum or worn boxer shorts, but perhaps the biggest eyebrow raiser of all time is the famous auction of Truman Capote’s cremated remains in 2016. The famed writer behind In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s died in 1984 and a portion of his ashes went to his good friend Joanne Carson (wife of former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson). After she died, many of the items she had that belonged to the late writer, including his cremated remains, went to an auction house who sold them to an anonymous collector for $43,750. Along with his cremated remains, the clothing Capote was wearing at the time of his death was also sold for $6,400

“I am sure people are going to think this is disrespectful,” said Darren Julien, CEO of Julien Auctions in an article for Vanity Fair. “But this is a fact: Truman Capote loved the element of shock. He loved publicity. And I’m sure he’s looking down laughing, and saying, ‘That’s something I would have done.’ He was a larger-than-life character.”


7. Inside a Stolen Car

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, more than 700,000 vehicles are stolen every year in the United States. Based on these numbers, it is perhaps not so surprising that just about every year we see a story about cars that are stolen with cremated remains inside of them. In the example video above, the story has a happy ending with a man who endured a carjacking being reunited with the cremains of two relatives that had been in the stolen vehicle. Unfortunately, many of these stories do not have such a happy ending. It is hard to imagine someone being so heartless as to steal something irreplaceable like cremated remains and not taking steps to do the right thing to return them. However, there have been some cases where grief-stricken families have been able to appeal to the thief’s better nature by putting out a public plea asking for the ashes to be returned.


Which of the examples on our list surprised you the most? Did we miss any unexpected places where cremated remains have turned up? Please share in the comments below.

Related Reading

10 Years Later – A Scattering Story
Guest Blog Post: 6 Creative and Unique Things to Do with Ashes
8 Things We Learned at CANA's 95th Annual Convention



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About The Author

Jess Farren (Fowler)

Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com


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