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A final moment of dignity for Pierce County’s forgotten residents

Respectfully scattering the ashes of our unclaimed deceased

From the back of a boat near McNeil Island staff members from the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office empty bags containing the ashes of individuals whose bodies had not been claimed.
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From the back of a boat near McNeil Island staff members from the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office empty bags containing the ashes of individuals whose bodies had not been claimed.

Near the northern shore of McNeil Island on Puget Sound, Wednesday afternoon was a time for reflection.

The sun shone through partly cloudy skies as members of the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office spread the cremains of 55 indigent or unclaimed people into the water from a boat at high tide.

“It has natural beauty and it has meaning for so many people,” county Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark said when asked why the county disperses the cremains in Puget Sound.

Each of Washington’s county medical examiners has the responsibility to find a permanent place for those people who were either unable to afford the $500 the county charges for cremation or who never had anyone to take their remains.

So two years ago, Clark chose to spread those ashes in Puget Sound.

About 15 people, mostly medical examiner staff members, were aboard the Mundell, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s boat, which is moored at Narrows Marina.

A deputy piloted the boat to Carr Inlet, between McNeil and Fox islands, then cut the engine.

Elyse Fairweather, a chaplain from CHI Franciscan’s hospice branch, gave a speech and read a short prayer.

“There is little known about the individuals being laid to rest this afternoon,” she said. “For many of them, we know their name, their age and their death date. We do not know their hobbies, what brought them joy and hope, nor do we know their faith traditions or religious inclinations.”

So she read each of their names, their ages and the dates of their death, then rang a bell to honor their memory, then repeated the simple honor 54 times.

Fairweather served as the chaplain after being recommended for the role by Abbie Barash, who served in the role when medical examiners dispersed ashes last year.

“It’s a sacred time to be honoring the transition from living to dead,” Fairweather said.

Among those honoring the dead was County Executive Bruce Dammeier, who even helped load the banker’s boxes of cremains onto the Mundell.

“For folks who’ve been denied a lot of dignity in life, it’s a dignified thing,” Dammeier said.

As he spread the ashes of some of the unclaimed dead, he said he thought of his wife’s relatives, whose own cremains have been spread by their family.

“You don’t think about how you spread ashes too frequently,” Dammeier said. “I didn’t want to dump them — that felt wrong. I wanted to spread them like I would do with my family.”

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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