Everyone lives a story.
For 23 people whose ashes were scattered Thursday in Puget Sound, their ending is all that’s known.
“We decided to finally put these people to rest,” said Amber Larkins, operations manager for the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The cremated remains dumped into the water during the informal ceremony belonged to people whose families chose not to claim them or whose loved ones could not be located.
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None was believed to be a homicide victims – mostly they died of natural causes or from an accident or suicide.
All but six had a name. Forensic investigators spent years digging through online databases and hospital records trying to figure out the story of the people who seemed to be abandoned in death.
There was Eugene Orr – the oldest unclaimed case in the Medical Examiner’s Office.
He died Nov. 20, 1984, in Portland and his remains, secure in a paper box fastened with Scotch tape, were found in January 1988 in Spanaway. His son couldn’t be tracked down.
Then there was Robert Serpa, who died April 7, 2007, in California but his remains turned up in Pierce County. His children were supposed to place his ashes on a mountain but he ended up in the sea.
An unidentified case known only as No. 04-1126 came the farthest, traveling nearly 3,000 miles from Richmond, Virginia. Another traveled from Las Vegas.
It’s a mystery how Mario Hernandez Placio’s remains ended up in a Fife hotel room in 2007 or what kept family members from coming to get Lorna Maye Skinner, who was homeless until she died in Tacoma in 2011.
The remains sat in their original containers on a shelf in the evidence room at the Medical Examiner’s Office until Thursday, when investigators loaded them into six cardboard boxes and drove them to Tacoma Narrows Marina.
“This is better than continuing to let them sit in an office,” said Dr. Thomas Clark, the medical examiner.
More than a dozen people boarded the Sheriff Department’s patrol and rescue boat and went several miles out into the water.
Chaplains Dianne and Larry Huffman of West Pierce Fire & Rescue stood at the back of the boat, thinking about what to say. They’d prepared no formal remarks and opted instead to let the moment dictate their words.
“Today is a celebration of life,” Dianne Huffman said. “We just want to respect and honor these lives that were significant, these lives that were sacred and bring closure to them.”
As raindrops fell, Clark brought the first few cremains to the back of the boat and knelt down. He dumped a metal box that had broken at some point over the years, the ashes falling quickly into the cold water.
Other employees took turns scattering the ashes, sometimes pausing to read the name on the urn.
Lana Hamm-Schank’s beloved pet proved the only blip in the process.
Clark disposed of Hamm-Schank’s ashes but at first could not get the lid off the rusted circular tin that contained her pet’s cremains. A screwdriver came to the rescue and their ashes mingled in the Sound.
Their remains were found in 2011, stashed together in a suitcase in a store parking lot in Bonney Lake.
Robin Bidwell was last. Bidwell was cremated in California in 1997 but children playing in Spanaway in 2003 found her remains on the side of the road.
In less than 20 minutes, the ashes of the 23 unclaimed people were dumped and the boat was heading back to shore.
Officials said disposing of unclaimed remains will be a regular thing, possibly every year or two. About 20 more urns are unaccounted for, seven being U.S. military veterans. Those will be brought to a veteran’s cemetery.
Puget Sound might not be the final resting place for those people though. Forensic investigators are considering Mount Rainier National Park, as well as various streams and parks in Pierce County.
Clark said he was pleased with Thursday’s ceremony.
“It makes me feel that we’re closing a chapter,” he said. “We’re celebrating lives that were otherwise uncelebrated.”