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Determining the fate of unclaimed 'cremains'
Metter investigation leads to questions about handling and storage of local remains
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Bulloch County Coroner Jake Futch displays his closet full of cremated remains that were never claimed after a death and cremation, or were found in abandoned in local residences. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

While state investigators are seeking answers regarding three sets of human remains found last week in a Metter recycling yard, 14 boxes of unclaimed human cremains — cremated remains — rest in a closet in the Bulloch County Coroner’s Office.

The remains found in Metter were not cremains, and had been stored in a funeral home shed for decades and authorities are trying to determine the circumstances surrounding the bodies and whether any crimes were committed, but storing the unclaimed cremains is perfectly legal.

Questions arise. Who are these people? Why weren’t they buried? Why has no one ever claimed the cremains in Bulloch County Coroner Jake Futch’s office?

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and Candler County Sheriff’s investigators are aggressively working to learn more about the Candler County case, but many people would be surprised to know that unclaimed  Bulloch County cremains are not an uncommon occurrence.

As disturbing as it may seem to some, Futch shares office space with the cremains, kept in a closet, labeled with names.

Some were unclaimed by relatives, but a couple were found abandoned in local residences, he said.

When a person dies and no one claims the body or cannot pay for a funeral, the county pays for cremation. Futch said he has discussed the possible purchase of a crypt or vault with Bulloch County authorities, but for now, the cremains are kept in his office, indefinitely.

Such cremains were once held in the old Bulloch County Jail on Hill Street; then later, in a closet at the old 911 Center in the basement of the Bulloch County Annex, he said.

The remains found in Candler County last week were not cremated remains, but bodies that were stored in containers (one was in a casket).  It is yet unknown why they were never buried. Workers hired to tear down an old shed took the casket and two containers to Scrap Partners to sell as scrap metal, and when one of the containers fell open to reveal a skull and rib bones, someone called the sheriff’s office, according to GBI reports.


Other Georgia burial laws

Many people have misconceptions about laws surrounding death and the handling of bodies, Futch said.

According to Internet website www.nolo.com, a legal encyclopedia, embalming is not a legal requirement.

Neither is a casket. 

“A lot of people are going for a ‘green burial,” Futch said. This means burial without a casket or vault and is legal.

However, checking with local ordinances and cemetery rules is a good idea, according to the website.

There is no legal requirement in Georgia for a casket for cremation, either “federal law requires a funeral home or crematory to inform you that you may use an alternative container, and to make such containers available to you,” the site reads. “An alternative container may be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.”

You can even bury a loved one in your back yard if you wish, “as long as it is not wetlands,” Futch said.

The website indicates there are no laws in Georgia prohibiting burial on private property.

As far as storage of ashes, or cremains, “In Georgia, there are few laws controlling where you may keep or scatter ashes,” according to the site.

“Ashes may be stored in a crypt, niche, grave, or container at home. If you wish to scatter ashes, you have many options.”

You are allowed to scatter ashes on your own private property. If you want to scatter ashes on someone else’s private land, permission must be granted.

Scattering ashes on public or federal land, or in rivers, lakes or at sea may require checking with local governmental agencies.


14 unclaimed cremains

If anyone feels one of the 14 boxes of cremains may be one of their relatives, they can contact his office at 912-489-1661.

Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch said Friday he recalls county officials speaking with Futch “a few years ago” about the issue, and agrees “we can do better than a closet.”

He said he is interested in hearing input from county residents regarding a “more respectful” resting place for unclaimed cremains.

Possibilities include a vault or crypt, a memorial building or a scattering garden, he said.

Couch may be reached at 912-764-6245.

 

Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at 912-489-9414.