ON THE EDGE
The unclaimed ashes of hard times
The funeral director knows: Good times mean fancy services; bad times mean unclaimed remains. So some of the dead stay with him, near those from other decades, other bad times.
Stephen Kemp rummaged through a supply closet for a box of staples, being careful not to jostle the blue paper bags of cremated remains on the floor.
It's not a great spot for ashes, but he ran out of space long ago. In the grand scheme of things, the closet is as good a resting place as any.
Kemp, the owner of Haley Funeral Directors, is used to a certain rhythm of life and death.
Good times mean fancy funerals -- open bars with top-drawer liquor, horse-drawn carriages, jazz bands for all-night jam sessions. Bad times mean unclaimed remains -- funeral fees often being a low priority for the living.
"Who can blame them?" Kemp asked.
The dead started arriving last fall, after the Oakland County medical examiner's office had accumulated too many unclaimed bodies in its storage coolers. In some cases, the next of kin couldn't be found; in others, relatives didn't have the money for a burial. Several of the deceased had been kept nearly a year.
Could Kemp cremate them?
He thought about saying no, because it was probably a losing proposition. Once he took the bodies, they were his responsibility forever.
But he relented. "Someone had to do it," said Kemp, 50, who took over the funeral home in 2003.
Each cremation cost him $895. In theory, the next of kin could apply for $427 in state cremation assistance and then pay the funeral home the remaining $468.
Only two families paid the fees. Kemp offered to give people the ashes, but some next of kin didn't want them or didn't know what to do with them. So, left with a dozen or so remains, he tucked them away beneath boxes of pens and stacks of printer paper.
Kemp, a burly man in an ill-fitting black suit, has also had to scrimp. Outside, the roads were icy and the sky was threatening snow. It wasn't much warmer inside the century-old building.
Kasondra Smith, a part-time funeral director and retired Ford Motor Co. supervisor of line production, bustled into the business office, clutching a thick sweater around her slender body.
"Chilly, huh?" she said.
He nodded. To save money, he keeps the lights off and the heat turned down between funerals. Kemp doesn't mind the cold. Neither, he figures, do the dead.
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