It used to be that when someone died who was a pauper or a stranger with no known next of kin, they were planted in what was called a potter’s field or in an unmarked grave on boot hill.
Not much has changed in that regard in these modern times, though remains are kept for longer while all efforts are made to identify the deceased and track down any family before the person is buried – in an unmarked but well-documented grave in Durango’s Greenmount Cemetery.
At least that is how it has been handled for decades in La Plata County by a team comprised of the county’s coroner’s office and the department of human services and in most cases, Hood Mortuary in Durango.
“If we have a body that is abandoned – or not always is it totally abandoned but sometimes families just don’t have the money to proceed, and so he or she gets left with us – then we keep them for 30 days,” said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith. “And then at the end of 30 days I start the process with Hood (Mortuary) and then we work with the county human services department.”
The coroner’s office begins by working with law enforcement to try to identify the deceased and locate any family, friends or anyone who might know anything about the person, Smith said. Sometimes, a person is not identified or if they are, no relatives or friends are found, while other times the family may lack the resources to handle arrangements or perhaps they are estranged from the person and lost contact long ago.
La Plata County Department of Human Services is the agency that attempts to track down any assets the deceased may have to help defer costs. The agency caps its payments at $1,500 per person, matching the cap set by the Colorado Department of Human Services.
“It’s always sad,” said Martha Johnson, director of the La Plata County DHS. “It’s a somber situation when either the family doesn’t have the resources to take care of their loved one the way they want to or there’s no way to identify their family.
“And so we take it really seriously and we definitely want to treat the situation with respect, and I’m really glad that our coroner and our mortuaries take it seriously,” she said. “They definitely want to do the right thing by these people no matter what their cause of death was.”
In 2020, La Plata County DHS paid for nine unclaimed or indigent people to be cremated. In 2021, there was only one person. And in 2022, there were six. Expenses can vary based on specific factors, but the cost is always picked up by either DHS or the coroner’s office, along with discounted mortuary services, or a combination of all three.
“And then once in awhile, and it depends, it’s kind of my option, if it’s a family that’s really, really struggling, then we will go through the process, but if they still want the cremains then I will get them to them, but they have to pay for the postage to (have the remains) mailed to them,” Smith said.
The entire process usually takes two to three months to complete after a person has died.
Ryan Phelps has worked at Hood Mortuary since 1994 and has owned it since 2005. He said there is a state statute that says remains must be kept for three years before they can be buried or scattered.
“In La Plata County, we work with the coroner’s office and usually return the cremated remains to the coroner’s office,” he said. “If there are remains after that three-year mark that we need to properly care for, then Hood Mortuary has in the past and in my tenure, we bought a grave at Greenmount Cemetery, and had a burial for many sets of cremated remains.”
The mortuary currently owns 10 grave sites side by side at the cemetery. The graves where the deceased are laid to rest are unmarked but documented.
“In the past when we’ve done something like that we do hold a very private memorial, we call a local pasture, we don’t make a big deal of it or try to gain any publicity from it,” Phelps said. “It’s just about being decent with these remains so that they are in a place of solace, of course.”
If a family member were to call later and want the remains, they can pay to have the cremated remains exhumed and mailed to them at their expense, Phelps said.
“And I will tell you, I have had people out of nowhere, years down the road, call me and say, ‘Hey, I just couldn’t do it and so now I’m in a mental place that I can and I want to come pick up my son or my loved one, whatever it may be,” he said.
It is a very sensitive situation, Phelps said, so the mortuary does everything it can to reach out to any family or friends before considering any remains completely abandoned. More than a few times, the funeral home has gone above and beyond by tracking down family of the deceased on Facebook that law enforcement and the coroner’s office were unable to find.
“And sometimes when we stalk and hunt and find someone, the family will say, ‘Oh my gosh, we were wondering where that person was,’” Phelps said. “You can’t even write a book about this because every case is so unique.”
The funeral home just recently tracked down the niece of someone who was destined for an unmarked grave only to discover the man had a burial plan prepaid in a state where he had previously lived.
“So through our research and diligence we were able to get his body lovingly taken care of,” Phelps said. “We always take care of the people and so one way or another they are going to be cared for. I kind of view it as our community service.”