Coroner’s Office Seeks to Find Family for Unclaimed Remains Before August Burials

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On a shelf in the back storage room in the Lewis County Coroner’s Office among equipment and files, there are boxes of unclaimed, cremated human remains of those who died and had no family to bury them. 

Some of the ashes, held within urns, have sat on the shelf for more than a decade, the oldest one from a person who died in 1998.

When Warren McLeod became coroner in 2011, he said the ashes of nearly 30 people sat in that back room. Now all but 18 of them have received a proper burial.

“It’s hard for me to admit that these people are in our store room,” said Dawn Harris, the chief deputy coroner.

For the past several months, employees at the coroner’s office, in addition to a cold-case deputies from the sheriff’s office, have been attempting one last time to track down any possible family of the individuals.

“We’ve exhausted all avenues,” McLeod said.

At the end of August, any unclaimed ashes will finally be laid to rest in the Claquato Cemetery with a proper burial, he said. 

“Having them in back in our store room didn’t sound right,” McLeod said. “They are still somebody’s family and friends.”

If someone dies and goes unclaimed for 90 days, they are then cremated and become the responsibility of the coroner’s office.

The cold case deputy working on tracking down the family members has used multiple search databases in an attempt to find families, which was successful in three cases.

The coroner’s office also organized with Operation at Ease to help the remains of seven veterans receive a proper burial last November.

“It’s been an ongoing project,” McLeod said.

One of the first urn of unclaimed ashes laid to rest was a Native American, who an employee had attempted to track down family by sending out a letter to each tribal nation. A year and a half later, the man’s sister came and got his remains in order to bury him.

“For me that was real exciting to know that he went back to his family and that he would be taken care of the way he should be,” Harris said.

During another investigation to track down family for a different person, they thought they had found a family member living in rural Alaska. They contacted an Alaska state trooper who took a boat out to the rural island where the family member was supposedly living. 

The trooper was unable to locate them, so he sent a certified letter to the person. The letter was never picked up, and the remains are still unclaimed.

While they are still not sure if there will be a headstone for the burial site in Claquato Cemetery, McLeod said, all the remains will be accounted for.

“It will be marked somehow, and they will be accounted for,” he said.

The burial is not going to cost the county anything, McLeod said. Claquato donated the plot of land and is covering the expenses of the burial.

All the urns will be going into the same concrete grave, and will be bio-sealed in order to make sure moisture doesn’t destroy them, he said. 

If any family comes forward at a later date they will be able to dig them up and give them to the family. 

The burial will take place Aug. 22 at the Claquato Cemetery at 2 p.m. The public is invited to attend to pay respect.

“We are trying to do the right thing for these folks,” McLeod said. “They’re still people.”

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This story has been updated to correct the date of the burial.

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