An artist with thrifty tastes, Gerry Sperry was wandering through a Goodwill store in Puyallup on the last day of 2013 when he came upon a lacquered wooden box in the hardware section.
He bought it, for $2.99 — and what it contained has him pursuing a quest in the new year.
“(It was) a well-made, solid wooden box somewhat larger than an old-fashioned recipe file,” Sperry described. “It has nicely beveled edges and all the signs of good craftsmanship — just the kind of thing I like to adapt into something beautiful and useful.”
It had two Phillips-head screws in the base. Once Sperry had walked it home, he sat at a table and opened it.
“I found neatly crammed inside a clear, heavy-duty plastic bag securely closed with a twist-tie and filled with what at first I took for sand and bits of white seashell,” he said. “It dawned on me: ‘I’m actually holding the anonymous remains of what was once a real live human being.’”
Sperry can’t be certain the ashes are human — though if they’re that of a pet, it was a large animal.
It feels, he said, like a 5-pound bag of sugar.
His reaction to the discovery was compassion, empathy and a little introspection.
“Knowing how most of us feel about mortality, I haven’t completely processed this,” said Sperry, 61. “I feel deep respect for it. It’s made me think of things I wouldn’t normally have thought about.”
Mostly, it’s made him want to find where the remains belong.
“They are a kind of responsibility,” Sperry said, “and what finally happens to them will say a lot about my own humanity to balance, perhaps, the carelessness that put them in my hands.”
How did a box of ashes wind up for sale in the Goodwill store on Meridian?
“Our store was unaware that this ornate box contained ashes,” Goodwill spokesman George White said Tuesday. “Staff reports that in 20 years we have only had two incidents of human ashes being found, and in both situations markings on the urn or other material in the donation helped us return the ashes to their family.
“We of course want to assist in doing all we can to help return this urn to affected family members.”
Legally, Sperry has no liability here and no responsibility to do anything.
A spokeswoman for Tacoma Mausoleum & Crematory said possessing the ashes — whether they’re human or animal — isn’t against state regulations.
“The state considers cremation final disposition of the body,” the spokeswoman said. “Things like this happen. People clean out a garage, find things and donate them without knowing what they are.”
Sperry is not certain what the ashes are, but he knows what he wants to do with them.
“I thought about putting an ad in the paper, but then I thought, ‘Who would look in the classified ad section for lost ashes?” he said. “Getting a photo of the box in the paper, I’m hoping someone sees it, recognizes it and can be reunited with someone that mattered to them.”
In the meantime, he keeps the box on a table in his farmhouse-style home, surrounded by the books, paintings, telescopes and sculpture that make up his life.
One night, about 12 days after he purchased the box, Sperry awoke and wrote an essay on what it contained, knowing he wouldn’t sleep until he finished.
“We have memorials containing the sacred remains of unknown soldiers. Do we have a memorial dedicated to the unknown citizens who soldier their way through life in forgotten travails?” he wrote. “Is it in any way fitting that these remains are denied the last modicum of respect: an identity?”
If he chooses, the Tacoma Mausoleum & Crematory has volunteered to accept the ashes from Sperry and scatter them for him.
It’s an option he’d rather avoid.
If you do, or think you might, email Sperry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638