Paying Last Respects for the Unclaimed Dead of Pierce County

Paying Last Respects for the Unclaimed Dead of Pierce County

September 15, 2018 4 By Sierra Hartman

On a remarkably clear day at the end of August I watched the cremated remains of 40 people drift into the waters of Puget Sound. The cremains belonged to people who had died in Pierce County over the previous two years and whose bodies were left unclaimed. The ceremony was organized by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. This was the fourth year the ceremony had taken place.

Pierce County Medical Examiner Cremains_06

We received an invitation to join the Medical Examiner’s team for the ceremony earlier that month. The email included a list of 48 individuals who had died including their name, age, and a brief description of their death.

Reading through it, I felt a mix of surprise, curiosity, and sadness. There was no doubt, though, that we had to see what this was about. It’s not every day you get invited to a memorial service for a few dozen strangers.

In the weeks between publishing the list of decedents and the scattering of the ashes, a number of people came forward to claim the cremains. Some were family, some were friends, and in at least one case, a total stranger who happened to share the first and last name of the deceased.

One was previously stolen (post-cremation) and returned to the family. One was a veteran and will be buried with due honors at a military cemetary. Another may be transported to a military cemetery to be placed next to her late husband.

Reading the list of names and the short stories of their deaths, I couldn’t help but imagine the missing pieces of their stories. Two people on the list shared the same unique last name, Dreadin. One was murdered in her home in Lakewood, the other five days later, threw himself off a bridge in Tacoma.

Three had already died and been cremated. Their remains were found under a light post outside a grocery store, a bus stop, and an unassociated cemetery. Two on the list were stillborn.

Pierce County Medical Examiner Cremains_05

In some instances, no family could be found for the deceased. In others, the family declined to take possession of the remains. The reasons for this are often as simple as not being able to afford it. Other times the family may have become estranged, sometimes as a result of criminal acts.

The service that the Medical Examiner’s Office provides is unique. Most counties bury unclaimed remains in a pauper’s grave, sometimes without markers or memorial. The ceremony onboard the Sheriff’s patrol boat, the Kent Mundell, was entirely different.

Pierce County Medical Examiner Cremains_03

We set out from the Day Island Marina around the southern tip of Fox Island. The boat stopped just outside Still Harbor at McNeil Island. Seventeen people, including the captain and co-captain of the boat, stood next to the eight cardboard boxes containing the cremains.

Pierce County Medical Examiner Cremains_01

It started with Reverend Daniel Miranda reading a heartfelt statement in English and in Spanish, for anyone who may have been watching the live video feed. In its conclusion he said, “We are not here to try to change the story or to fix things. We are here to simply and beautifully acknowledge the sacredness of life, the importance of each breath of life, and in basic human decency, to demonstrate that each life deserves to be treated properly when their time on earth is completed.”

Each member of the team then took turns bringing a bag to the stern and pouring out its contents. The current carried each plume of ash away from the boat a few yards before the next one was scattered, leaving a strange dotted line that got darker as the ashes sank deeper.

For a group of professionals who regularly deal with the ugliest sides of death, one might assume that a boat ride to scatter ashes is a relatively ordinary activity. On the contrary, this was much more than a hollow ritual for the staff of the Medical Examiner’s Office. It’s seen as an honor to go on the boat and join in the scattering of the ashes.

The decedents who were finally laid to rest had been at the office and on the minds of the staff, in some form, for the last two years or so. The scattering of their ashes provided closure to a number of stories that could easily linger for a long time in someone’s mind.

Below is the list of people whose cremains were scattered. The original list, including those who were claimed before the ceremony, can be seen here.

  1. Melvin R. Augg, died at age 50 on 12/30/16 of natural causes while homeless in Tacoma. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  2. William Anthony Baker, died at age 54 on 05/05/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  3. Carol Mae Canter, died at age 62 on 01/09/17 of natural causes at home in Puyallup. No family was found for her.
  4. Boddy Gene Cauvel, died at age 58 on 01/20/17 of natural causes at home in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  5. Dong Ho Chung, died at age 84 on 01/07/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Lakewood. No family was found for him.
  6. Gerald Robert Coates, died at age 58 on 11/17/16 of natural causes at home in Graham. No family was found for him.
  7. Samuel C. Dreadin, died at age 52 on 03/22/17 of suicide by jumping from a bridge in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  8. Donald G. Duncan, died at age 71 on 09/09/16 of natural causes at home in Lakewood. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  9. Dale V. Edmunds, died at age 69 on 06/29/17 of natural causes while residing in a hotel in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  10. Vicki Lynn Emery, died at age 59 on 07/01/17 of natural causes while homeless in Tacoma. No family was found for her.
  11. Charles Gary Felts, died at age 75 on 07/22/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  12. Adriana Carmen Forbes, died at age 77 on 03/30/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Lakewood. No family was found for her.
  13. Barbara Ann Gibson, died at age 62 on 02/03/17 of natural causes while on hospice in University Place. Her children were not found.
  14. Joseph John Hadel (Deshotel), died at age 74 on 01/15/17 of natural causes at home in Tacoma. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  15. John Charles Hager, died at age 58 on 03/10/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  16. Gayle Hardman, died at age 65 on 07/11/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Puyallup. She remains unclaimed by her family.
  17. Norman Walter Hartnell, died at age 63 on 11/17/16 of natural causes while in a mental health facility in Tacoma. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  18. Larry A. Heathcock, died at age 60 on 05/17/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Puyallup. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  19. Edward Charles Henderson, died at age 67 on 07/11/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Puyallup. No family was found for him. A coworker just came forward but did not claim him.
  20. Matthew J. Hoey, died at age 74 on 08/03/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  21. Jayceon Jones, was stillborn on 12/27/16 at a hospital in Tacoma. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  22. Lillie Kaufman, died at age 74 on 08/22/15 of natural causes while on hospice in University Place. She remains unclaimed by her family.
  23. Christine L. Larson, died at age 61 on 05/30/17 of natural causes while at home in University Place. She remains unclaimed by her family.
  24. Patrick A. Lee, died at age 60 on 08/27/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  25. Michael R. Magee, died at age 68 on 12/15/16 of natural causes while hospitalized in Lakewood. No family was found for him.
  26. Jean McDonald, died at age 55 on 08/09/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Gig Harbor. She remains unclaimed by her family.
  27. Donald Eugene Miller, died at age 63 on 08/18/17 of natural causes at home in Tacoma. No family was found for him. A friend just came forward but did not claim him.
  28. Elwyn O. Mitchell, Unknown age, unknown date of death, cremated remains found with two photographs and a bible under a tree in an unassociated cemetery in Tacoma on 06/27/17. We have been unable to locate possible family.
  29. Steven Leo Owens, died at age 62 on 11/28/16 of natural causes while in a skilled nursing facility in Tacoma. His family was not found.
  30. Baby Price, was stillborn on 04/08/17 at a hospital in Tacoma. She remains unclaimed by her family.
  31. Leah Jean Rardin, died at age 47 on 10/13/16 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. She remains unclaimed by her family.
  32. Charles Wesley Reynolds, died at age 60 on 11/24/16 of natural causes in his car in a hotel parking lot in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  33. Chan Sap, died at age 68 on 02/03/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  34. Dennice Secrist, died at age 65 on 07/07/17 of natural causes while hospitalized in Tacoma. No family was found for her.
  35. Michael D. Sorenson, died at age 52 on 12/28/16 of natural at home in Lakewood. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  36. Randy Jay Steele, died at age 40 on 03/03/17 at a hospital in Lakewood after an accidental overdose in Spanaway. He remains unclaimed by his family.
  37. William Henry Tyler, died at age 66 on 07/10/17 of accidental overdose near railroad tracks in Tacoma. No family was found for him.
  38. Male Unidentified, died at an unknown age on approximately 02/01/17. He was found in the Puyallup River in Tacoma. His remains unidentified and therefore no family has been found for him. He is listed in www.NamUs.gov where dental charting is present along with DNA analysis which is in process.
  39. Eugene Lyle Wright, died at age 65 on 07/25/17 of natural causes in a skilled nursing facility in Puyallup. No family was found for him.
  40. Lee C. Yeck, died at age 70 on 04/22/17 of natural causes in a skilled nursing facility in Tacoma. No family was found for him.