"There are people who arrange for the cremation of their loved one and then fail to retrieve the cremated remains in a timely manner -- and some even choose to completely abandon them," he said. "There are some consumers who incorrectly believe that when they choose cremation no other decisions need to be made and that is not the case … that's why today it's a nationwide dilemma for funeral homes …They are not just ashes. What they are is a human being."
Some funeral homes offer financial incentives – when relatives approve the cremation they are asked to put down a deposit and they receive that deposit back when they pick up the ashes.
Regardless, unclaimed remains continue to pile up, especially because of the "massive increase in the number of cremations," according to Dr. William Lamers, 79, who co-authored a book with Kubasak and was one of the first physicians to develop a hospice program in the United States.
"It's a simple principal -- it's called out of sight out of mind," he said.
New Bill Would Help MIAP Find Veterans and Provide Military Burials
Salanti and two Ohio congressmen are hoping to change that for the large number of unclaimed veterans – Salanti estimates there are more than 100,000 stored in funeral homes around the nation.
Last Thursday Republicans Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers introduced the Missing in America Act, which would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to help determine if unclaimed remains are eligible for burial at a national cemetery. The bill also asks the VA to work with veterans service organizations and other groups, including MIAP, in possessing the abandoned or unidentified remains.
An earlier version of the bill was introduced in 2009 when the House was controlled by Democrats, and it fell short of the required number of co-sponsors.
Tiberi says he thinks this year will be different, and is "pretty confident" the bill will make it to committee.
Salanti said, "The chances of getting this law passed now are tremendously better and it's just exciting that we're getting some recognition at the national level."
"We think this is a home run issue," Tiberi said.
For now, MPIA continues searching funeral homes and tracking down documents, working without pay. The organization is run by individual donations, without any corporate sponsors. It's tough, at times, Salanti says, "We're in tears and crying half the time. My nickname is waterworks."
But for him, in the end, it's worth it.
"We represent what those guys lived for. Otherwise they're going to be alone going on their last journey."