Inside the funeral industry: Northampton man’s ashes reclaimed from common grave



Last modified: Sunday, March 29, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — When city native Paul W. Swift died in March 2009, his ashes were held in safe-keeping by the former Pease and Gay Funeral Home on Prospect Street. According to one family member, they were to be interred along with his wife’s in a Northampton cemetery when she died.

Six years after his death, Swift’s wife is still alive, but the burial plans have taken a painful turn. After learning that the funeral home was sold last fall, Swift’s children discovered that their father’s remains had been buried in a vault with other unclaimed ashes at the Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield.

The funeral home’s former owner, James Gay, says a family member was supposed to have retrieved the ashes after Swift died at age 84, but never did so. As a result, they remained in storage at the funeral home until its sale was pending — and Gay moved them to the Springfield cemetery along with other unclaimed remains.

“What I thought I was doing, quite honestly, was to put the people in a respectful place,” Gay said from Nashville, Tennessee. “In my mind, that’s what I thought I was doing. I do think that was the proper thing to do.”

For their part, Swift family members say funeral home operators should have tried harder to reach them before sending an urn with the World War II veteran’s remains to a common grave. “I was very distressed,” Paul Swift’s son, Will Swift, said after learning the news last week. “My siblings are very upset.”

According to Will Swift’s account, his father wanted to be buried with his wife, Jane Swift of Leeds, when she died. He could not recall whether there was a written contract detailing those arrangements. Gay, the former funeral director, says there was no contract with the family. Will Swift said his stepmother, Jane, had recently asked him to check on his father’s ashes when a daughter alerted her to the funeral home’s closing. Swift, who dropped off his father’s obituary at the Gazette in March 2009, did so last week.

“I just know that it was all understood,” said Swift, of Valatie, New York. “I would have preferred to just take the ashes myself.”

Jim Gay says Swift’s wife was to supposed to come to the funeral home after her husband died, pick out an urn and take the ashes home at some point, but that never happened. He said he attempted to reach Swift’s wife last year about her husband’s ashes when he sold his business, but without success.

“We reached out by telephone but were unsuccessful,” he said. “We never got calls back. Never got through.”

As a result, Swift’s ashes were taken with about 20 other sets of unclaimed cremated remains to Oak Grove Cemetery.

Swift learned that his father’s remains were buried in Oak Grove through Northampton funeral director Jay Czelusniak, who acquired the Pease and Gay business last fall. Contacted by the Gazette, Czelusniak and Gay both said this week that they are assisting the family with getting Paul Swift’s ashes removed from the vault in Springfield without having to pay the cemetery’s $905 fee for opening the grave.

(Will Swift was initially told he would have to pay the fee to remove his father’s ashes from the vault in Springfield. Czelusniak initially said that cost might be reduced if another family also wanted to have a loved one’s ashes retrieved.)

At this point, Gay said, “We’re going to make sure the ashes are going to be available to them at absolutely no cost.”

In addition, Czelusniak said he is examining paperwork he inherited from the Pease and Gay Funeral Home to determine if there are relatives of other deceased people whose unclaimed ashes were moved to the Springfield cemetery, in case they also want them removed.

A former businessman who graduated from Northampton High School in 1942, Paul Swift was a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Air Force in Sardinia, North Africa and France. He grew up on Prospect Street right near the Pease and Gay Funeral Home, which handled his grandmother’s funeral arrangements in the 1960s. His father had been president of Smith Charities and his extended family has a plot in Spring Grove Cemetery, according to Gordon Swift, his nephew in Florida.

Will Swift said his grandparents had been close friends with the funeral home’s past directors on Prospect Street and that his family is troubled that the business did not do more to reach out to his family regarding Paul Swift’s ashes.

“The point is, no serious effort was made,” he said.

While Gay said he reached out by phone to Jane Swift before taking her husband’s ashes to Oak Grove Cemetery, state funeral regulations state that if the cremated remains of a deceased person have not been claimed by the next of kin or other authorized person after 10 months, a funeral home must send a written notice, by certified mail and return receipt, to those people at their last known address.

If cremated remains still have not been claimed after an additional two months from the date of such a notice, a funeral home may have the remains “interred or placed in a common grave, niche, or crypt in a cemetery, or scattered in an area of the cemetery designated for that purpose,” the law states.

Gay said he did not send a written notice to the Swifts or any of the other families whose unclaimed ashes he brought to Oak Grove Cemetery in early December. In an interview, he said he didn’t believe he was required to do so based on his interpretation of state law.

Will Swift said the phone calls were not enough. His mother has been under the care of a caretaker for the past few years and he said the caretaker likely would have seen a written notice from the funeral home had it sent one.

“It’s the example of the kind of thing that can go wrong when you use the telephone,” Swift said.

Gay told the Gazette this week that he had no other information on the whereabouts of Paul Swift’s family members, apart from Jane Swift.

He and other funeral directors interviewed say it is not uncommon for funeral homes to store ashes and then dispose of them as the law allows when they go unclaimed. In Paul Swift’s case, Gay said he held on to his ashes for six years at no cost, which some other funeral homes might not do. One set of ashes he brought to the cemetery in Springfield date back to the 1920s, he said.

“Every funeral home has unclaimed remains ... ashes,” Jay Czelusniak said. “You’re supposed to attempt to contact the next of kin. We have people that just never come back to get the ashes.”

John Huffman, superintendent of Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield, said that funeral directors bringing unclaimed ashes to the cemetery is common — and that comes at a cost.

“They might get quite a few cremains over the years that people don’t pick up,” said John Huffman, superintendent of Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield. “You have to put these cremains somewhere, and that’s what they do.”

Huffman said unclaimed ashes brought to Oak Grove Cemetery by funeral directors are buried in a vault and in a grave that looks like most others in the cemetery. The cemetery maintains records of the unclaimed ashes brought there.

“You could probably put up to 200 cremains into one vault,” he said.

Gay said he went one step further and had the unclaimed ashes he brought to Oak Grove Cemetery put in a large casket within a vault, which is costly, though not necessary. He said it cost him from $4,500 to $5,000 to bury the unclaimed ashes at the cemetery.

“It’s not insignificant,” Gay said.

While the Swift family’s situation is moving towards a resolution, the case should serve as a cautionary tale for those working in the funeral industry, Will Swift said.

“I hope it’s helpful to other people and gets funeral directors thinking about how to be more careful about this,” Swift said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


 


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