Lost & Found: A family reconnects with abandoned remains

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — This is not your typical holiday season family story.

Not light and airy. No turkeys or tinsel in this one.

More of a cautionary tale about family and fate and what can happen at the end of life.

It started when a friend of a KOLR10 employee called to say she’d happened upon an urn of cremated remains abandoned in a small Springfield cemetery.

It was propped up beside the headstone of another person who died more than 70 years ago and appeared to have been there for a while. Dead leaves from previous autumn were caught in the spider webs strung from the urn to the gravestone.

A label and mortuary receipt inside the urn indicated the ashes were those of an Ava man who died in 2016. It was a mystery too unusual not to pursue.

Phone calls and internet searches through obituaries and genealogy sites led us to the funeral home and crematory that handled the remains of a man we’ll call John, a 57-year-old who died of complications of diabetes at a Springfield hospital in May of 2016.

We are not using his real name or those of his widow or relatives out of respect for the family and because we don’t know who put the urn in the cemetery or why.

Members of John’s large Michigan family told us they were en route to Springfield when he died. They stayed for the funeral and the body was cremated. The man’s widow traveled to Michigan with half of the ashes for burial in a family plot in Marlette. The other half stayed with her in the Ozarks. Those appear to be the ashes that turned up in the Payne Cemetery in west Springfield, according to the crematory manager.

It’s not clear how an urn containing the Missouri half of the remains wound up next to the monument of a stranger who died 14 years before John was born. There’s no apparent connection between him and the other residents of the small graveyard on Farm Road 129.

A mortuary worker who called the only number available for the widow told us a man who identified himself as her current husband answered and said, “We don’t care about that. You can do whatever you want with it.”

John’s family in Michigan isn’t having that.

“We want to put those together with the ashes we have buried here,” his older brother told me in a phone interview this week.

“He wanted to be buried next to his mother and that’s what we’ll do.”

The cemetery where the ashes turned up wouldn’t have been a bad place to spend eternity.

Courtesy: Google Maps

Payne Cemetery is a small shady acre once surrounded by farmland but now bounded on all sides by housing developments. Gravestones dating back to the late 1800s show it’s the final resting place of Paynes, Johnsons, and Frys, but there may be other graves marked only by broken stones.

County records reveal no names of people responsible for the property, but it’s clear someone cares about it. Seventy years after the most recent burial there, it’s neatly mown and the trees are trimmed.

Courtesy: Google Maps (currently there are more homes in the area than pictured)

Was it abandonment of a corpse to leave the urn out like this in the elements, the finder wondered in a text.

Not really, according to Brian Simmons, whose Springfield Mortuary Service cremated the body after a funeral in Ava. It’s up to survivors whether to scatter the “cremains” or put them in the ground, in a marble niche or even on the mantle.

In Missouri, there are no state laws controlling where you may keep or scatter ashes. They are considered sterile and are not thought to be a health hazard, regardless of the cause of death.

Dropping them off in a random cemetery is not the normal practice, though, Simmons said.

“It’s up to the family what to do with the remains, but that’s not appropriate,” he said.

“We have a lot of remains in storage here,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t get claimed. But if they are, the family takes it from there.”

Online family records and obituaries indicate that John was born in Sandusky, one of 10 children.

After more than 30 years as a truck driver, he died at a Springfield hospital. Online obituaries laud his kindness, honesty, and piety.

His brother echoed those sentiments and said, “He was the kind of guy that would do anything for anybody. If he saw somebody broke down on the road, he’d always pull over and do everything he could for them.”

Facebook comments offered blessings, prayers, and sympathy to his widow and his many siblings, children and grandchildren.

After services in Ava and cremation in Springfield, some of the ashes were placed in jewelry mementos and the rest divided between the two urns and given to John’s widow. She has remarried and moved away from Ava, according to Ava Family Funeral Home director Geneva McCullough. I was not able to reach her by phone or online.

John’s brother said the man wound up in the Ozarks, hundreds of miles from where the rest of his family has remained and multiplied, after taking advantage of a deal at Prime Trucking in Springfield to buy a tractor-trailer unit for $1 down and operate it as a long-haul driver.

In the Ozarks, he met the woman who would become his wife.

“He was madly in love with her,” his brother said. “When love hits you, that’s all there is.”

Eventually, John’s wife also earned her commercial driver’s license and the two drove the truck as a team until his health forced him to stop driving.

“Once he turned 18, he got the truck and never gave it up,” even driving shorter hauls of bottled milk after he couldn’t continue the long hauls for Prime, his brother said.

“He loved being on the road.”

As for John’s remains, the urn has been recovered from the cemetery and shipped to his brother and siblings in Michigan to be interred near their mother’s grave and alongside the cremated remains of other family members.

He’ll be back home, within 10 feet of Mom, Dad and a brother and a sister.”

How to start that end-of-life chat

We’re coming up on the time of year when professionals tell us it’s a good time to talk with gathered family members about sometimes-difficult issues such as final wishes regarding end-of-life care – or just plain end of life.

Funeral practices are changing and more people are opting for cremation over traditional burial, but be aware, there are things to iron out with your kin so your remains won’t end up on a shelf somewhere.

Looking for ways to start the conservation about your wishes regarding end of life issues, including funeral, burial or cremation plans?

Here are a few links to websites that offer advice:

Making sure your wishes are met

What can a person considering cremation do to avoid John’s fate for themselves?

  • Purchase a pre-need funeral plan that pays for and includes details about the final disposition.
  • Put your wishes in your will and make inheritance contingent on those wishes being carried out.
  • Most importantly, talk with heirs and next of kin about your wishes. But don’t assume your spouse or children will necessarily adhere to those wishes. If more than one person is involved, your chances of being left on a storage shelf are reduced.
  • There are thousands of boxes of cremated remains sitting on such shelves, unclaimed by family members who just don’t want to deal with final disposition. And it can be expensive if burial is the plan.
  • Cemeteries may charge $350 or more to open a grave to bury an urn or other containers of cremated remains.

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