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Abandoned remains 'not uncommon'
County, charities, DFCS quietly step in to provide final resting place
Potter's Field: The Eastview Road cemetary has a few plots for unidentified bodies or those who can't pay for burials.

A Conyers crematory owner was stunned when an Atlanta woman abandoned her mother’s body at the crematorium, but industry insiders say such incidents are not uncommon.

Ray Wilson, owner of Premier Cremations in Conyers since 2002, said he was left with the body of an Atlanta woman who died June 26 at Piedmont Hospital after the woman’s daughter did not come back to pay.

He had met with the family of the deceased four times before their mother died. But after he collected the body, "when we asked for the payments, (the daughter) looked me square in the eyes and told me, ‘We don’t have any money,’" said Wilson. She told him she would have the payment the next day. "And we’ve never seen her since."

The situation was resolved when a recording industry executive, Shanti Das, stepped in to pay for the cost.

Wilson said he’s had families say they didn’t have the money at the time. Out of about 300 cremations they do a year, about one in five families have financial difficulty in paying for the services.

"That’s not uncommon. But to totally walk away," he said.

"The economic downturn has nothing to do with it," said Wilson. "It’s the people’s mindset. They refuse to prepare for this situation. I’m 47. My generation and younger simply don’t plan for it. They’ll just deal with it when it happens."

Wendy Edson, manager of Metro Embalming and Crematory in Conyers, said she hasn’t encountered such a situation before.

"But it’s really not uncommon," in the industry, she said.

"It happens a lot. You have people who squabble over who’s going to pay the bill and the body sits in the county morgue," she said. Sometimes families will also take a while before collecting cremains, or cremated remains.

She estimated about three in ten families that come to them have difficulty in paying for the cremation, which she said starts at $695 for Metro Embalming.

In such situations, she said she directs families to charitable and relief organizations, such as local churches, hospices, Rockdale Emergency Relief, and the Department of Family and Children’s Services.

The county where the person died, not lived, also has jurisdiction if no family members or guardians are found or if the person is proven indigent and the family cannot pay for a cremation or burial, according to County Coroner’s Office administrator Joyce Rogers.

Rockdale County reportedly purchased a few burial plots in the cemetery on Eastview Road in the 1960s for indigent burials. Over the years, it has assisted with the costs of the cremation and burial of a few indigent deaths, including a young Hispanic man whose body was found shot repeatedly last May. The man’s family eventually contacted the county, and the remains were disinterred and returned to Texas.

Jerry Sullivan, who sits on the board of the Cremation Association of North America and operates four crematoriums in Illinois, described similar situations in other parts of the country.

"When cremation rate was low, it didn’t make all that much difference," said Sullivan about the problem of abandoned cremains. The rate of cremation has risen from just 14 percent in 1985 to nearly 40 percent in 2009, according to figures collected by CANA. Georgia reported about 23 percent of deaths were cremated in 2007.

But when he recently closed one of his crematoriums, "there were half a dozen sets of remains nobody came back for. They’ve been with me for 35 years."

"I don’t know if it’s guilt," he said. "If they do show up, I want to say yes, we can help you out."