Funeral director launches national database for cremated remains

February 24, 2014
Michael Neal, owner of William G. Neal Funeral Homes in Washington, explains his new online database, Forgotten Ashes. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

LeMoyne Crematory in 1876 became the first crematory in the United States, and it was built in North Franklin Township. Over a century later, it’s perhaps fitting a Washington funeral director created the first online database to help people track down cremated remains of their relatives.

“From here is where cremation evolved,” said Michael Neal of William G. Neal Funeral Homes on Allison Avenue.

Neal and his wife, Sherrie, just launched Forgotten Ashes, which already has close to 3,000 names registered on the website at Hospitals, county coroners, medical examiners and other providers with custody of cremated remains can enter names of the deceased into the online database, which is free and accessible on all devices.

Once a name is registered into the database, Forgotten Ashes becomes one of the top results in a search engine for that individual’s name. Pages can easily be shared on Facebook, and the facility that registered the name can be directly contacted by family members.

Cremations are performed for about 30 percent of deaths in Pennsylvania, which is lower than the national average, because Pennsylvania is still largely a traditional state, Neal said. But the national cremation rate is steadily rising, and the dilemma of unclaimed ashes takes a toll on the facilities charged with holding onto them. Oregon State Hospital currently has the ashes of about 3,500 people, and for that reason it was the first facility to be granted access to Neal’s database.

“Cremations are on the rise for a lot of reasons,” Neal said. “Part of it is cost, and part of it is that certain segments of society see no value in a funeral, so they want the simplest, quickest thing.”

Several funeral homes will begin uploading data onto the website this week, and Neal said he already was contacted by interested individuals in Australia and the United Kingdom, leading him to believe the problem is even more widespread than he originally thought.

Neal said he found through his research most cremated remains are forgotten because of family estrangement or prior incarceration of the deceased person. In other cases, ashes remain in limbo because choosing where to bury or scatter ashes can be a difficult decision for families.

Whatever the reason, Neal said the renewed interest in genealogy could help some of these long-forgotten ashes find a final resting place.

“When they died, no one would claim them,” Neal said. “Now you’re several generations later, and they have these cremated remains, and people are very interested in genealogy, and I think there’s a renewed interest in more or less unifying families. I think you’re going to have a generation of today that’s not concerned with why they were estranged. They just want to bring them home.”

Neal said he is not aware of a similar online database, but he is familiar with the Missing in America Project, which aims to locate the cremated remains of veterans.

Neal said he hopes to continue expanding the database, and he is “anxiously awaiting” the first success story.

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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