Pierce County to scatter unclaimed ashes on Puget Sound

Pierce County will scatter the unclaimed ashes of 23 people Thursday on the waters of Puget Sound, providing a final resting place for remains that were either unwanted or for which no friend or relative could be found.

The Medical Examiner’s Office will use the Sheriff’s Department’s patrol and rescue boat to carry the cremated remains to an undisclosed location on the Sound.

Dr. Thomas Clark, Pierce County medical examiner, said many of the cases go back decades. His office has done everything it can to find next of kin, he said.

“We’ve exhausted our leads,” Clark said. “Keeping them forever is not a sustainable process.”

In some cases, friends or relatives were not interested in claiming the remains, he said.

Most of the remains are of those who died from natural causes, Clark said.

Some of them came from unusual places. The ashes were found in newly purchased and rented homes, on church steps, a stranger’s porch, in the back of a pickup truck, in a store parking lot and on the side of a road.

The Medical Examiner’s Office doesn’t have room to store them indefinitely, Clark said.

“We’re already bursting at the seams with all the boxes of records we have,” he said. “We can’t dedicate a space for this.”

Clark said it’s more dignified to scatter the ashes. “Being stored on a shelf forever isn’t dignified.”

Scattering them is more environmentally sound than burying them in a single grave, he said.

“Spreading the ashes is the most environmentally friendly thing we could do,” said Clark, who plans to take part in the scattering.

The county has employed West Pierce Fire & Rescue Chaplains Dianne and Larry Huffman to say a few words aboard the boat before the ashes are scattered Thursday. The names of the individuals will also be read.

“I believe that every life is valuable, every soul is sacred,” said Dianne Huffman. “Everybody should have a loved one that would miss them once they were gone and give them a proper farewell.”

Huffman and her husband have served as chaplains for West Pierce Fire & Rescue for 10 years. They have never participated in an event like this and have never been part of scattering ashes on Puget Sound, she said.

Clark said he’s not aware of his office disposing of ashes in the past, but he believes it may happen more regularly in the future — perhaps every year or two.

Most of these 23 sets of remains originally came to the county as ashes. But some were first received as dead bodies, in some cases under the unclaimed or indigent program funded by the county.

Dead bodies were turned over to local funeral homes for cremation. Sometimes the ashes were returned to the county; other times, the funeral homes buried or stored the ashes themselves.

Now, because of a change in state law, the Medical Examiner’s Office will be able to contract with a single funeral home, which will cremate bodies and return all remains to the county. Previously, it paid funeral homes to cremate bodies using a rotating system, under which the funeral homes were responsible for the ashes, Clark said.

“All the ashes will come back to us,” Clark said of the new procedure. “We will know where they are, and we will be able to track for each one when it’s time to be scattered.”

In addition, Clark’s office is no longer accepting boxes of remains that have been found and turned in, Clark said.

The remains of those confirmed to be U.S. military veterans are entitled to interment in a veteran’s cemetery. Clark’s office will continue to make those arrangements.

The Medical Examiner’s Office has listed details, and in most cases names, of each person on its website: piercecountywa.org/medicalexaminer.