A state of limbo Advocate looks after transients' ashes, tries

Sunday, January 20, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The boxes on the table represent the last chapter of lives played out on society's margins.

Made of white cardboard, bearing identification labels from Parker Funeral Service, they've been sitting on a bookshelf at the St. Francis House, waiting for either a fortuitous phone call or a sufficient thawing of the ground.

The plight of Columbia's untethered living is fairly well-documented. Besides the two St. Francis homes, groups such as the Salvation Army and the New Life Evangelistic Center also work to feed, clothe and shelter the homeless. Less well-known, however, is the state of limbo that ensnares the remains of Columbia's unclaimed dead.

Lana Jacobs, who runs the St. Francis and Lois Bryant homes, said that at least "a couple times a year" they will accept the unclaimed, cremated remains -- known as "cremains" -- of local people who have died, usually those who have been in contact with the shelter at one time or another.

When that happens, Jacobs often shifts from social worker to detective, trying to track down the families of the deceased. While she searches, the boxes sit in the homes on Range Line Street, sometimes waiting months before their contents are buried or reunited with families. At one point, two or three years ago, the shelter had five such boxes.

St. Francis House isn't the only place that houses such cremains. Death Investigator Dori Burke said the Boone County's Medical Examiners Office also has "two or three" sets of unclaimed ashes, some a couple of years old. While the office occasionally tries to match cremains with families, Burke said such attempts have been unsuccessful.

'The guys'

The St. Francis House is occasionally more successful.

On a recent afternoon, Jacobs brought out three boxes -- "the guys," as she called them.

One had died in March, one in June and one in October.

In two cases, families have been identified, and Jacobs was preparing to ship remains.

The family of one man was found after St. Francis House got an inquiry from Ohio's child support office. A volunteer contacted the appropriate agency and was put in touch with the mans ex-wife.

"She wants to have his ashes and have a burial," Jacobs explained. "It's important for them to have closure."

The third mans family has not been found. Jacobs said he will probably be buried in the spring. She makes decorative satchels out of linen, material left over from the christening gowns she sells, for such burials.

"If you lived on the streets and you were homeless and you go out, you should go out with something beautiful and fine," she said.

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