Daughter Reunites With Father's Remains

After 67 years, Martha Grinestaff finally reconnected with her father -- albeit in the afterlife. Sort of.

Her father died of diabetes in 1941 when she was 8 years old. Her mother had never picked up his remains from the Ohio funeral home where his body had been cremated.

"My mother was very organized and responsible but had to find work and the war started in December," Grinestaff told ABCNews.com. "So I don't know why."

But a friend, who had grown up with Grinestaff, saw a notice in a newspaper that the ashes of Julius Morgen were stored neatly among 34 other uncollected "cremains" at Toledo's Abele Funeral Home.

"It absolutely took my breath away for a few minutes," said the 75-year-old widow from Lakeview, Ohio. "It still confuses me when I think about it. But it brings back a lot of memories."

Funeral directors say that abandoned ashes are common when relatives can't afford a burial, or in the case of Grinestaff's mother, forget during the stressful period that follows a loved one's death.

"I hate to say it, but this happens more times than it should," said John Reed, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association.

Abandoned Ashes Are 'Out of Sight, Out of Mind'

"God knows why it happens," Reed told ABCNews.com. "Maybe somebody's moved or there is some disagreement over who had custody. Sometimes it's the final reality or complacency -- out of sight, out of mind -- or not knowing what to do."

A survey by the Cremation Association of North America said that about 1.7 percent of cremated remains go unclaimed. Of those not picked up, 59 percent were placed in storage at the funeral home.

More Americans than ever before are choosing cremation as a budget-conscious method of "final disposition," according to CANA. Since 1975, cremations have jumped from 6 percent to 34 percent, and the group predicts those numbers could jump to more than half of all Americans who will choose to be cremated by 2025.

Funeral costs can vary around the country, but a burial with full traditional services can cost between $4,500 and $40,000. Cremation, on the other hand, ranges from $1,700 to "several thousand dollars," according to Reed.

Families Can't Afford Cemetery Costs

Today, families who collect their loved one's ashes have a variety of creative ways to dispose or display them, from biodegradable urns to ones shaped like a book or a motorcycle gas tank.

"The only limits are the imagination," Reed said.

But when Grinestaff retrieved her father's 67-year-old ashes, they were in the original cardboard box.

Most states set waiting periods up to four years before disposition and many states have no regulations. But in Ohio, funeral directors are only required to hold on to the uncollected remains for 60 days. The ashes must be in separate boxes so they are retrievable, in case a relative eventually shows up.

Director Jim Abele, whose family has run the funeral home since 1860 -- "before Lincoln was elected president" -- was finally forced to close after his brother and business partner died this year. He was left with 34 boxes, including those of Grinestaff's father.

At least 11 of the boxes at Toledo's Abele Funeral Home -- some of them dating back decades -- have been reunited with relatives. One man who contacted Abele after seeing the ad had been without his father's ashes since 1991. Some never return because they haven't paid their bills or can't afford a cemetery plot.

"Maybe someone else thought they were picked up," he said. "One lady died and her family talked about getting her ashes out on a small island in Lake Erie. She passed away during the winter, and they were going to do it in the spring. [The family] never came back."

Peter Stefan, director of the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlor in Worcester, Mass., said he has more than 200 boxes of remains stored in floor-to-ceiling shelves in an unused dumbwaiter.

"It's sad," he told ABCNews.com. "It's part of a nationwide problem, and the funeral directors do nothing about it."

The problem has gotten so bad in his state that he has pushed for a bill to release funeral homes of liability after they dispose of the remains -- either through burial or scattering -- as long as they keep permanent records. It now sits on Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's desk, according to Stefan.

"We have to absorb the cost and we have to do something decent," he said. "We can't have them all over the basement. Some funeral homes have to build another house to put them in."

Death of a Loved One; Ashes Left Behind

"It's an age-old story," he said. "People say, 'Throw my ashes in the garbage or the river.' But you can't throw them away," he said. "They could be Uncle Freddy's ashes. They could come and sue you."

One woman -- a drug addict -- had a stillborn child and Stefan offered the cremation for free. She took the ashes home, but when she moved, she left the urn behind.

"The new guy called me and I contacted her," Stefan said. "She called back and said she would come over. That was four years ago."

But when funeral directors such as Abele can connect relatives like Grinestaff with lost ashes, they say they feel a sense of pride.

"She was a neat lady, so it was kind of a relief," Abele said. "I get the satisfaction in my own mind of getting them reunited."

Meanwhile, Grinestaff, who for years worked for Ohio Bell telephone company and now enjoys her knitting, gardening and reading, hasn't decided yet what she will do with her father's remains, but she is grateful to Abele.

"They are good people," she said.