Tim Trainor is editor of the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Ore. Arden S. Barnes is a photojournalist with the Herald and News through Report for America. This story is set in Klamath County (population 68,000), which has the Herald and News, printing four days a week.
Ipo Ross and Benjamin Quen knew they would find dead people inside. But when they opened the file cabinet, kept in the corner of a darkened storage area of the Klamath Memorial chapel, they were stunned by how many there were: 75 separate boxes, each containing the cremated remains of a human being. Some of them — marked simply with a name, date of birth and date of death — had been there for decades. No one had ever come to claim them.
Ross and Quen believe in Catholic burial. Both are devout followers of a faith that calls burial a “corporal work of mercy” — one of seven ways to care for the bodily needs of God’s creatures. It was a mercy not given to those left behind in the storage room. “It’s a hard thing to think about, no matter if you’re a believer or not,” Ross says. “Just sitting there …”
Even before opening that file cabinet in 2016, Quen and Ross had resolved to bury unclaimed cremains in Klamath County, Ore., a 6,000-square-mile expanse bigger than three U.S. states. The men, who help run the nonprofit Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery in the county seat of Klamath Falls, asked local funeral directors if they were in possession of forgotten cremains awaiting a final resting place. The answer was always yes. The Klamath Memorial Chapel’s cabinet was their biggest find.
In mortuaries across the country, there are shelves and drawers filled with the unclaimed, unwanted dead. In Oregon, funeral homes are not required to keep cremains for more than 180 days, but many morticians find it hard to discard that most personal of effects. So they sit, dust gathering dust. It’s unknown why so many are left behind: Cost, family squabbles and the fog of grief can all play a part. Some have no family to claim them. And some families can’t, won’t and don’t want to make that final decision to commit a loved one to the ground or scatter them into the wind.
“I’ve heard of a lot of horror stories,” says Mike Nicodemus, vice president of cremation services for the National Funeral Directors Association. “Funeral home employees who went to the house to deliver the remains and saw the lights go off … people running to the back so they didn’t have to answer the door.”
Ross and Quen thought no one was better positioned to answer the door, throw on the lights and take on that responsibility. The two men — and the board of Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery — made a plan: Establish a potter’s field, gather the unclaimed dead and give them a proper burial. And they wanted to invite their community to both witness and participate in the ceremony. “We did make it important because we wanted people to know these things,” says Quen. “That we were losing respect for the dead.”
Quen and Ross collected cremains while community members helped prepare a resting place. The local council of the Knights of Columbus, of which both are members, helped raise money for the interment and donated a marker for the potter’s field.
They amassed 148 forgotten cremains just in Klamath Falls, a town of about 22,000 people. The collection included: 11 military veterans, an infant, a person born in 1886. A six-time Olympian. A bag of unlabeled cremains found on the side of the road.
Following the tenets of their Catholic faith, Ross and Quen put all 148 into ossuary tubes (spaces where many cremated remains can be interred together) and covered them in shrouds. Eleven Christian pastors attended the burial in November 2017, as did about 160 members of the public. The crowd included Klamath Falls Mayor Carol Westfall, who found herself unexpectedly moved by the effort to remember and honor the dead. It’s a feeling that stuck with her. Four years later, she still leaves flowers at the potter’s field each Memorial Day. “It’s something I’m going to pass on to the next mayor,” she says. “Part of the duty.”
Ross and Quen feel like it is now their duty, too. The cemetery held a second mass interment — of 143 previously forgotten individuals — in May 2021 as part of the Knights of Columbus state convention. Knights councils from across Oregon went home to consider similar projects.
“If we would have done this and received no recognition, that would have been fine with me,” says Quen. “But if the recognition or the coverage means that we’re getting that information out to other people who will take up the effort, then it’s worth it.”
Meanwhile, collections will continue in Klamath. There is room for more than 14,000 cremains in the potter’s field, and both men say they plan to continue claiming and burying the dead until they join them in the earthly embrace of Mt. Calvary. “When you deal with death every single day, you see the impact when families lose somebody,” says Ross. “Some are angry. Some don’t care. Some, it affects them later. But no matter what, they deserve not to be forgotten.”