When the nameless die, they often end up in a potter’s field, a common grave. In Pierce County, unclaimed remains or bodies get cremated and placed up on a shelf in the medical examiner’s office.
But that shelf has gotten crowded lately. So medical examiner Thomas Clark decided to give those unclaimed ashes a respectable burial – at sea.
"We considered scattering them on Mount Rainier," Clark said as his employees carried boxes of ashes down a long dock. "The sentiment in the office was that Puget Sound was the best way to do that."
On Thursday, Clark's team boarded a salt water patrol boat loaned to them by the Pierce County Sheriff. As it left the dock, clouds choked the sky, but the rain wouldn’t come.
The boat stopped at a spot off Fox Island, idling in the water. Chaplain Larry Huffman said a few words: "Ecclesiastes 12 says the dust of man shall return to earth from which it came. And the spirit will return to God who made it."
Clark then emptied a box of ashes over the side of the boat. They were the remains of an unidentified man found in a field.
The medical examiner’s office receives lots of human remains. Ashes, or bodies, which are often then turned to ashes.
Remains were stacked in a corner. Some were in simple cardboard boxes, others in elaborate ceramic containers.
Amber Larkins is a manager in the medical examiner’s office. She held up a container that caught her eye.
"It’s just a little tin urn, with some rust on it. And a little heart and some roses. And it’s a smaller tin than the urn that it’s with,” she said. “And these were found together. So we’re thinking the size of this was probably her pet or maybe a child. These remains were both found in a suitcase in a parking lot of Walmart."
Clark and his staff poured the ashes of about 23 people into the water. Some of them had been homeless. Many were old and estranged from their families.
Clark read a description of one of the deceased: "Song Hui Laschet. Died Oct. 22, 2010 in Olympia, Washington. Sixty-two years old. Was a widower with no children. No living next of kin in the U.S. and unknown if any are living in Korea."
It’s Ryann Thill’s job to try to find the next of kin. Her official title is medicolegal death investigator, and her search begins with the dead person’s name, if she has it. She calls random hospitals. "Have they been in the hospital before? Who’s listed for emergency contact? Have they been in jail before?"
Sometimes she gets lucky and finds a relative. But those relatives don’t always want the ashes, leaving them with only strangers to mourn them.
"You do get used to death,” Thill said. “Just the physical aspect of death – the bodies and what we have to do. The emotional part – I don’t think you ever get used to that."
"It is a sad situation in some ways," Clark said. "But I think being scattered on Puget Sound is not a bad end."