Donald Mink wasn’t prepared for the call that came on Feb. 23: His mother had died in North Dakota, just days after entering hospice at the age of 77.
Mink, at home in Indiana, was suddenly faced with a dilemma: How could he lay his mother to rest from several states away?
He decided to have his mother’s body cremated, then to send her ashes to Seymour, Ind., so he could bury them in her home town, between his grandparents’ graves. The state of North Dakota would cover the cremation costs, since his mother had been a ward of the state. Mink would pay the $65 shipping fee.
So on Feb. 28, the cremated remains of Mary Louise Mink were shipped by the North Valley Crematory in Grand Forks, N.D., via U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail Express.
Donald Mink said he was told to expect the package to be delivered to his home within two days.
His mother’ ashes never arrived.
What followed, Mink said, were months of anguish, legal disputes with both the crematory and the Postal Service, and an alleged falling-out with his own attorney.
Now, eight months after his mother’s death, he still doesn’t know where her ashes are, and may have no recourse.
Mink, 43, told The Washington Post the situation began to escalate in mid-March, when he called the crematory to ask why he hadn’t received the package.
An employee answered, Mink recalled, and “his exact words were, ‘The post office is supposed to get a hold of you.’ I was like, why? ‘Well, they’re going to call you and explain everything to you, and they’re going to make it right.’
“He tells me that the post office told [him] not to give me a tracking number. I called the post office. The lady on the other end said there’s no way that they’d ever do that.”
Mink called the crematory employee back and “said a few words to him I probably shouldn’t have” before the man finally gave him the tracking number and a note of caution: “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you but your mom’s remains have been lost.”
Mink looked up the package on the USPS website.
It was listed as “Dead Mail.”
“Your item could not be delivered or returned to the sender,” the tracking tool stated. “It is being forwarded to a USPS mail recovery center where it will be processed.”
Mink filed a complaint against the crematory with the North Dakota State Board of Funeral Service and hired an attorney, who obtained an electronic copy of a Postal Service picture of the missing package as it was last seen: The image showed a flat Priority Mail Express Tyvek envelope, roughly 11 by 15 inches, ripped open and empty. The boxed temporary urn that had been inside was gone.
Mink was shocked to learn that the crematory had placed the temporary urn inside an envelope, rather than a cardboard box, as the Postal Service recommends in its guidelines for mailing cremated remains.
In letters, his then-attorney, Stephen Welle, alleged that the crematory staff did not properly package the remains for shipping, nor did they include a full return address on a slip of paper inside the box, as the USPS also recommends.
“Not only are Donald and Mary’s other family members unable to complete the process of saying their final farewell by laying Mary to rest, they must struggle daily with the knowledge that Mary’s remains are lost,” Welle wrote in May. “Mary Mink’s remains have not been handled in a dignified manner and my clients have suffered severe emotional distress as a result.”
Mink’s attorney demanded $1 million from the crematory in a settlement. He also filed a complaint against the Postal Service for negligence, but the USPS denied the claim, saying it was protected from liability for lost mail under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The Postal Service has repeatedly reassured Mink that it is continuing to search for his mother’s remains, which have likely been routed to a processing facility for undeliverable mail in Tennessee.
“It’s ridiculous that they tell me that my mother’s remains are just missing mail,” Mink said. “It may be to them but it’s more than that to me and my family.”
Neither the Cremation Association of North America nor the National Funeral Directors Association keeps statistics on how frequently cremated remains are lost in the mail.
“My sense, and this is just anecdotal, is that it happens infrequently. It’s not a regular occurrence,” CANA executive director Barbara Kemmis said. She noted the most frequently visited page on the group’s website outlines exactly how to package and ship cremated remains. “So clearly it’s a topic of interest.”
Mink never thought he would cremate his mother. Though they hadn’t seen each other in nearly 20 years, Mary Louise Mink had frequently expressed her end-of-life wishes — and was clear about what she wanted, Donald Mink said.
“My whole life I could remember [her saying], ‘I don’t want to be cremated; I don’t want to burn,’ ” Donald Mink said.
And yet, the cost to ship her body to Indiana for burial would have been prohibitive, he said.
“I had no choice, you know what I mean? Because I didn’t have the money to have her body brought back here for a funeral,” Mink said. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
What he couldn’t have known then were the legal battles that would lie ahead as the result of that decision.
In response to Mink’s $1 million settlement demand, the crematory denied any wrongdoing, laying blame on the Postal Service for accepting, then losing the package.
The remains had been placed in a “heavy plastic liner bag” that was zip-tied and put inside a black vinyl temporary urn, with surrounding empty space filled with foam packing peanuts, crematory manager Wayne Sykes told the North Dakota funeral service board in April. That temporary urn was then boxed and placed inside the Tyvek envelope, he added.
The crematory had shipped “hundreds of urns without incident” in this manner, Sykes said.
Reached by phone, a man who identified himself as the North Valley Crematory manager said: “I’m not going to speak to you about this. It’s not our doing. It’s the U.S. Postal Service. Goodbye.”
An attorney for the crematory told Mink’s lawyer the packaging was consistent with North Dakota administrative code, even though the inside label lacked a complete return address.
The crematory’s attorney also accused Mink — who in early June had shared his story with several local media outlets — of spreading “misinformation” and defaming the crematory, threatening to sue for slander if Mink didn’t retract a quote he had given to Valley News Live: “Obviously, they didn’t know what they were doing.”
Mink said his own attorney had advised him in June to recant his statement if he wanted to move forward with a possible settlement.
“There’s no way in hell I’d do that,” he said. His lawyer soon dropped him as a client.
Months later, Mink didn’t mince words in his summation of the case, lashing out at nearly every party involved in crude terms.
Of the crematory, he said: “They got a little butt-hurt and their lawyer threatened to sue me. I told [my attorney] to tell them to do an explicit act, and he said I can’t tell him that. He said he couldn’t represent me anymore. I’ve been trying to deal with the post office’s lawyers myself.”
Mink described his former attorney as “a big sissy” who “didn’t have the balls to fight” and “quit me because he said I had a terrible attitude.”
Reached by phone at his office in Fargo, Welle declined to comment on the case but confirmed he is no longer representing Mink.
The last significant development in the case came on July 12, when Mink received a letter from the North Dakota attorney general’s office: The state funeral board had ruled that the North Valley Crematory met all of the state’s legal requirements when shipping Mary Mink’s remains.
In short, Mink’s complaint was dismissed.
“We feel terrible about it, but the package was shipped according to the law and so we couldn’t discipline the crematory,” said Dale G. Niewoehner, the funeral board’s executive secretary.
Niewoehner said the board has since published updated suggested packing guidelines — complete with step-by-step instructions that echo USPS recommendations. The new instructions emphasize the use of a box for the outside packaging, as well as more complete inside labeling; Niewoehner said the board is also working on getting state code changed.
Mink has little hope his mother’s remains will ever be recovered, though he continues to receive periodic Postal Service notifications saying investigators are still searching for the lost package. One was dated on what would have been his mother’s 78th birthday.
“The Postal Service offers our deepest condolences to the family,” spokeswoman Kimberly Frum said in an email. “We are keenly aware of their desire to locate the missing package as soon as possible. We regret that, to date, the remains haven’t been located. But we are committed to our ongoing, vigilant search to find them.”
The Postal Service keeps undeliverable packages of cremated remains indefinitely, Frum said.
Mink said he has “literally called every single lawyer in North Dakota” but has not been able to find a new attorney willing to represent him so he can sue for emotional damages. He also wants a public apology from the post office, as well as one from the crematory’s lawyer for threatening to sue him, he said.
“It’s not about the money. Me and my family, we live comfortably. We go on two or three vacations a year. I work my tail off,” said Mink, who noted he works two jobs. “It’s just, my thing is, the only way to get people’s attention is to hit them in the pocketbook. That’s the truth.”
Unprompted, Mink brought up the case of David Dao, whose forced removal from a United Airlines flight went viral in April. Mink said he had followed coverage of the United incident, bitterly lamenting that Dao had been able to reach a settlement “by playing the Vietnamese card,” whereas he couldn’t even get a new attorney to take his case.
“That little Vietnamese guy, he gets his a — beat on an airplane, for not getting off an airplane,” Mink said. “He gets a lawyer that gets him probably millions of dollar . . . I call bullsh–. His injuries will heal. Me, I’m never going to get to lay my mother to rest.”