Unclaimed Ashes? How to Collect Cremated Remains & More

How do you collect cremated remains after cremation? What happens to unclaimed ashes?

People often have questions about how the cremation process works, plus how and when they can expect to get the ashes back. There are other questions, too: Can I have a family member pick up the remains? What if a family member tries to claim the ashes, but I don’t want them to?

We have the answers to all these and more below.

How to Collect Ashes After Cremation

The cremation has been completed. Now what?

  • The funeral director will call you. The director will let you know that your loved one’s cremated remains are ready to be picked up.
  • You will set an appointment to come in. Please bring someone with you. It can be very emotional, and support is always nice to have.
  • When you arrive, someone will take you to the arrangement office.
  • The funeral director will join you. The director will have the cremated remains with him/her.
  • The director will show you the urn and the cremation certificate.
  • You will have to show your ID. The director will make a photocopy of your ID to stick in your loved one’s file. Yes, the director remembers who you are, but most funeral homes require an ID.
  • You can take your loved one’s cremated remains with you.

If you get home and have questions, do not hesitate to call the funeral home. They are there to help you through this difficult time.

Who can collect ashes from the funeral director or crematorium?

The next of kin or someone the next of kin has designated can pick up the cremated remains. This will likely be you, or the person of your choice. The funeral director will have kept all the information about who is the designated person.

Who has the right to ashes after cremation?

Legally, the next of kin (NOK) is the ONLY person that can pick up cremated remains. If you can’t make it, you can designate someone else to do it. You must let the funeral director know. A funeral director will not release the cremated remains to anyone but you unless otherwise instructed by you.

Example: Your husband has died and was cremated. Your son came to pick up the cremated remains. The funeral director will not release the cremated remains to him. Without your permission, it will not happen.

It is a safety precaution for everyone.

Do you have to take the ashes after cremation?

There can be many reasons why you can’t pick up the cremated remains of your loved one. You may not have planned a ceremony yet. You might not be comfortable picking them up, or you could be out of town when the funeral director calls.

Maybe it’s just too much for you to handle right now, or perhaps it’s difficult to arrange a ride or the right time. The list can go on and on.

I had a gentleman come in (I’ll call him Bob), and he made plans for his wife (I’ll call her Mary) to be cremated. I called numerous times and left messages, letting Bob know that Mary was ready to be picked up. Some weeks went by, and Bob still hadn’t come in.

Just when I was about to give up hope, Bob’s brother came in to see me. The brother, Mike, had gone to visit Bob. Mike found Bob deceased on the living room floor. That was the reason Bob couldn’t come in to pick up Mary’s cremains. If Mike hadn’t come in, I would never have known.

That was an incredibly unusual situation, but if you think about it, every situation is unique. There are many reasons why someone might leave the ashes unclaimed.

This brings up another common question: What happens to cremated ashes if they are not collected? Let’s find out.

What Happens to Unclaimed Ashes After Cremation?

Yes, believe it or not, some cremains go unclaimed. The cremation has taken place. The director calls the family. They just never come in to pick up their loved one.

During the arrangements, the NOK signs a form giving the funeral home permission to send the cremated remains to them. That is often what will happen if they don’t come in to pick up. The shipping costs will be charged to the family. This can be very expensive. The funeral director will call and tell the NOK that the cremated remains will be mailed. If the NOK doesn’t give the funeral home a credit card, the cremated remains won’t be shipped.

Sometimes, these sorts of situations devolve into a sad runaround of phone calls and no-shows.

Eventually, the funeral home will stop calling. Ultimately, it is up to the NOK to come in and take charge of the cremated remains.

How long will a funeral home hold ashes?

The length of time to hold cremated remains varies from state to state. It can be as little as 60 days all the way to 4 years.

If you need the funeral home to hold onto the cremated remains for you, just ask. Most funeral homes can accommodate you. A high-volume funeral home won’t always be able to comply.

When the time limit is reached, the funeral home is then free to dispose of the ashes at their own discretion.

Can the funeral home dispose of ashes?

The short answer is “Yes.” Legally, a funeral home can dispose of cremated remains. I have never heard of one doing it, though. But after the legal amount of time has passed and documented attempts to contact the family over time, it is left to the funeral home to decide what to do.

Some funeral homes have a designated crypt in a cemetery for unclaimed ashes. The cremated remains are inurned, and careful records are kept. If, years later, a family member comes in looking for the cremains, the funeral home will be able to tell the family exactly where the cremains are.

There are funeral homes that have a scattering garden for their unclaimed cremains. The funeral home will wait the legally designated time and then scatter the cremains.

Can a funeral home hold ashes for payment?

No. A funeral home can not hold cremated remains for a ransom. The funeral home would still have to release the cremated remains if the NOK came in to claim them.

This is one reason why a funeral bill must be paid in full upfront or secured with life insurance. I have told hundreds of families, “We can not move forward without payment.”

This doesn’t always sit well with family members, but the funeral home is a business. The livelihood of the owners and their employees depends on it.

Can you throw away cremated remains?

You can throw out unwanted cremated remains. It isn’t illegal. It may be morally questionable, but not illegal.

Take some time to think about it. Don’t throw the cremated remains out in your grief. You could regret it later.

At the very least, you should consider scattering the ashes in a respectful way.

What should you do with ashes if you don’t want them?

If you don’t want the cremated remains, you may want to ask other family members if they would like the honor of keeping them.

Or you could…

  • Scatter them over the ground or in the ocean
  • Turn them into a diamond
  • Bury them or place them in a niche
  • Turn them into a tattoo
  • Make them into a vinyl record. A company in the UK, called Vinlyly, will press the ashes into a finished vinyl record. You supply the music, the cover art, and the cremated remains. They will take care of the rest. This can get a bit pricey, starting at $4,315.00!

With so many ideas and innovations for cremated remains, you can find something to do with your loved one. Here are some more ideas, from creative to conservative to crazy.

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How to Collect Cremated Remains

6 thoughts on “Unclaimed Ashes? How to Collect Cremated Remains & More”

  1. What if remains were left in an abandoned apartment and the landlord has to get rid of them? Where can they be sent to be held for family that may come looking for them?

  2. Hi Sherry,

    Excellent question. There’s no legal directive regarding this, but I would start by contacting the local funeral home and/or crematorium, as well as the county health department.

  3. My husband has just found out that his best friend’s ashes are at Duke University hospital. He has no family to claim them and he received a call from another friend if he can find a way to obtain them. He was told if anything happens to him, call my husband. What can we do?

  4. Hi Monica,

    The best thing to do is contact the hospital and explain the situation. They will most likely be willing to work with you to figure out a resolution.

  5. Hi Wayne,

    Most funeral homes/crematoriums have initial paperwork with space to fill out who is authorized to pick up the cremated remains. Put the name(s) of the people who you would approve to collect the ashes, and they would just need to bring photo ID at the time. But be sure to talk to the funeral home about this, as each facility has their own requirements and policies.

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