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Shelf People

In the funeral industry, they are referred to as shelf people. Who are these people? They are men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from all different ethnic groups, regions and walks of life. While they are all different, they all have three things in common. First, they have all passed away. Second, they were all cremated. And third, and the saddest of all, is that their cremated remains have never been picked up by their family. They sit, unclaimed, on the shelves of thousands of funeral homes across this country.

We have about fifty of these shelf people at our funeral home. Some passed away just a year or so ago and some have been with us for over thirty years. I was speaking to a friend of mine about this not too long ago and his first question was, “how could this every happen? Who would leave their loved-ones cremated remains at the funeral home indefinitely? The sad reality is that many of these people were alone in the world – having no family or even friends to take care of their final arrangements. At the time of their death, a stranger, probably a social worker at a hospital or nursing home had the daunting task of making their final arrangements. And with no family, and often very little funds, after their cremation, they sit here with no cemetery to go to, no family to take them home and no one to grieve for them.

Several of our shelf people were homeless, and after the State of NH paid for their cremation, there was no place to have them buried. While these are sad cases, to me the saddest ones are those people who did have family yet their family choose not to pick them up after the cremation. After dozens of phone calls and letters to the family from the funeral home, their loved ones simple decided to abandon them. It is not for me to judge why someone would simply leave their family member to sit on a shelf. Maybe the family emotionally never accepted the death and does not want that reminder. Maybe the deceased was an abusive person who never really provided any love or support to their family. Or maybe their family had every good intention to pick them up but somehow lost track of the days, months and years and are now too embarrassed to show up to claim them.

There is somewhat of a happy ending to this. A few months ago, I was speaking with the Superintendent of the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery about these shelf people. He asked if any of these folks were honorably discharged veterans. Since we had limited information of many of these people, I told him I did not know so he offered to do some research for me. Come to find out, four of our shelf people had served in the military. Knowing that, and knowing that the VA provides for free burial space and military honors, we made arrangements to have these veterans interred at the NH Veterans cemetery in Boscawen. Finally, after years of no one caring about these people, we have now been able to entrust them to care of the Veterans Cemetery staff. They were all given military honors with distinction, had a blessing by a military chaplain and have had headstones ordered thanks to the VA.

As far as the rest of our shelf people, we will watch over them. Hopefully one day someone comes to claim them.

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