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New law aims to help Washington funeral homes overwhelmed with unclaimed bodies

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(The Center Square) – Washington funeral homes and coroners are now allowed to dispose of unclaimed human remains after 45 days.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed House Bill 1974, which reduces the length of time that funeral homes must hold onto unclaimed bodies from 90 days to 45 days.

House Bill 1974, sponsored by Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, passed the Legislature this session and was singed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. It went into effect June 1.

During a January public hearing before the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee, Abbarno said, “This bill came to me at the request of the Lewis County Coroner. Currently they are required to keep the remains for 90 days, which is an exceptionally long amount of time, especially for those in small counties that don’t have a lot of space.”

The original bill would have reduced the time for keeping remains to 30 days, but it was amended to 45 days.

Travis Locke is the funeral director at Herring Funeral Home in Walla Walla. He told lawmakers most funeral homes are small operations with just a handful of employees.

“The 90-day hold has proven itself to create a great strain,” Locke explained. “Our primary job is to get the dead where they need to go and get the living precisely where they need to be.”

Jeff Wallis is the program supervisor for the Kitsap County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Wallis told The Center Square financial constraints keep a lot of families from claiming remains.

“When family members designate a funeral home, they come get the body and then the family would break off communication or not make any final arrangements,” he said. “Then the funeral home was forced to hold that body for 90 days.”

“Money is tight and pricing on even simple cremations runs the gamut,” Wallis said. “It can be anywhere from $500 to $3,000.

Wallis said funeral homes, especially smaller ones, don’t have the space or the financial means to keep human remains indefinitely.

“The funeral homes were having to store those bodies for three months before they could proceed with cremation and even then, they often don’t get paid,” he said. “The bodies have to be kept refrigerated, and that space is obviously limited, and as those three months roll along, it eventually becomes diminishing returns, with funeral homes out of space to store anybody because they are holding remains of people that haven’t been claimed.”

Wallis says the drug epidemic is a major factor in cases of unclaimed remains.

“We have seen a huge spike in drug related deaths since 2018,” he said. “They are without any identification, and we partner with other agencies to get them identified through other means: finger prints, dental exams, but then comes the challenge of finding family.”

Wallis told The Center Square it often takes years to find family members.

“We had one family reach out from New York because they lost contact with their loved one here in Kitsap County. We worked on it for a year,” he said. “The persons remains were buried in 2022 and the family reached out to us last September.”

“I was just out to our county indigent plot, and there are 97 remains there today,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to be adding three to that, so we’ll have 100 out there.”

Wallis says the new law is helpful, but it’s not enough.

“We’re finding that if we don’t have families committed within a week, for arrangements, for a payment plan or something like that, that it’s not going to happen,” he noted.

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