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Call Kurtis Investigates: Broken Urn Sends Relative’s Ashes Flying

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Shedding a tear, Rita Torres struggled as she recalled watching her brother Jimmy’s ashes fly out from an urn into a cloud of dust.

She pulled up a mat in the living room, showing his remains on the floor. Unable to clean them up with her bad knees, she covered the ashes because she was afraid her cat would confuse them for kitty litter.

“It just breaks my heart every time I think of what’s happened to him,” Torres said.

“It hurts.”

Jimmy died of a stroke last month in Washington state. At the request of his guardian, Spokane Cremation and Burial of Spokane shipped his ashes to Torres in an eagle urn.

“When I opened it up and everything started flying out, I said ‘No way!’ That’s his ashes right there.”

Torres says the eagle statue was broken off from the base, leaving a gaping hole. His ashes poured out. Torres initially blamed UPS because she remembered hearing the driver drop her package “hard” in her front yard.

Our investigation uncovered the funeral home never should have shipped the urn through UPS. Shipping “human remains” is against UPS policy, something those in the funeral industry tell us is well known.

“We do adhere to some very strict code of ethics,” said Lisa West with East Lawn Memorial Park of Sacramento.

When we told West about what happened, she and a colleague stopped by Torres’ home, helping her clean up the remains. West says basic industry practice calls for ashes to be bagged, not just placed raw inside an urn.

“With use of something as simple as a plastic bag inside an urn, you avoid any problem no matter what the compromise is to the urn,” she said.

Spokane Cremation and Burial Service owner Bill Rossey told CBS13 by phone that he packed the urn in the box well. He declined an on-camera interview and pointed the finger at UPS and the urn’s manufacturer, suggesting a possible workmanship issue with the urn or rough handling by the shipper.

“I’ve been in the business 15 years,” he said. “I’ve handled thousands of cases with remains and never have I heard anyone say anything about an urn breaking before.”

Rossey had no explanation for breaking UPS rules and claimed he didn’t put the ashes in plastic before placing them in the urn because a bag wouldn’t fit.

But West demonstrated for CBS13 how she’s fit ashes in urns with smaller openings.

The urn’s manufacturer Ziegler and Ames told us, “It was completely irresponsible of Spokane Cremation to have shipped cremated remains in this fashion. … It saddens us greatly that anyone should be subjected to what this woman has gone through.”

The company supplied her with a new urn at no cost. Seeing her brother’s ashes go up in a dust cloud is something Torres can’t get out of her mind.

“I just hope they don’t do this to somebody else,” she said.

UPS Statement
I was able to follow up on this one and I’ve learned that our customer relations group made contact with this customer to apologize for the way the package was delivered. In addition, UPS has issued a goodwill payment in the amount of $300, to cover the replacement of the owl statue that the urn was contained in. (editor note: Torres initially reported it to be an owl urn, but later determined it was an eagle)

However, it is incumbent on the shipper to properly package the item to withhold the shipping environment, as well as adhere to the UPS tariff which states: Items Not Accepted for Transportation includes “Human Remains, fetal remains, human body parts, or components thereof” as not accepted for shipment.

We will follow up with the shipper in this case. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

— Laurie Mallis

Manufacturer Ziegler & Ames Statement
We are certainly dismayed at just now becoming aware of this situation, and frankly shocked that a funeral professional would ship any urn with cremated remains inside of it.

Answers To Our Questions:
We have no workmanship issues with regards to this product. The issue at hand is that this urn (and every urn) is not intended to be shipped with the cremated remains inside. The packaging of each product is intended to allow the urn (by itself) safe and protected transit a single time. To that effect all of our products are drop tested to the highest standards in the industry. All of that testing goes out the window when the additional weight of cremated remains is added to the urn. The purpose of this urn (and any urn for that matter) is the long term containment of cremated remains, not a vehicle for shipping cremated remains. This urn was used in a way that was absolutely not intended.

It is common industry practice to place cremated remains inside a plastic bag, but it is not a requirement. Surely in this case the use of a bag may have been able to prevent or minimize the problem of the cremated remains being free to disperse (providing that it was not damaged as well).

Our recommendation would be that no urn ever be shipped with cremated remains inside. Funeral professionals should know this as a matter of common sense in carrying out their service to families.

In this case it was completely irresponsible of Spokane Cremation to have shipped cremated remains in this fashion. It was unfair to UPS, to Ziegler & Ames and most importantly to this unsuspecting woman.

It saddens us greatly that anyone should be subjected to what this woman has gone through.

— Executive Vice President Don Schickler

Cremation Association of North America Response
Cremated remains are typically placed in a bag with an ID tag and then placed in the urn when delivered or shipped to the family. This is part of the chain of identification that happens throughout the cremation process.

Once the family is in possession of the cremated remains there is no particular reason, beyond preference, to keep the remains in the bag if they would prefer to remove them.

— Executive Director Barbara Kemmis

Link: Cremation Association of North America Cremains Shipping Rules

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