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What Happens to Unclaimed Human Remains in Canada?

Daniela Fortino
Daniela Fortino
February 21st 2023 - 11 minute read
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Learn what happens to unclaimed human remains in Canada, including the handling of unclaimed bodies vs unclaimed cremation ashes.

Funeral arrangements are typically handled by the deceased person's close family and friends, but what happens when no one is willing to come forward? Unfortunately, this is a common issue for many morgues and funeral homes across Canada. Learn about how unclaimed remains, unclaimed ashes, and subsequent final arrangements are handled across the country.

What are unclaimed remains?

Unclaimed remains can refer to bodies or ashes from a cremation or alkaline hydrolysis (sometimes referred to as aquamation or water cremation).

What is an unclaimed body

An unclaimed body is a deceased person who's body has not been claimed by someone willing to handle end-of-life arrangements such as burial or cremation. Unidentified bodies ( a body without a known identity) are also included in this definition. A body can be claimed by various roles: a next of kin, executor, or claimant.

An executor is an individual appointed in a Last Will and Testament to administer a deceased person's assets and estate. They also often handle funeral arrangements or allocate funeral responsibilities to a third party.

Next of kin refers to a person's closest living relative. This could be a blood relative (e.g., children or siblings) or a person with a legal relationship (e.g., spouse). Determining next of kin depends on the area you live in, but responsibilities will typically fall to the spouse or children of the deceased person (learn more.)

Claimant: This is a person (e.g., friend) or organization (e.g., church) that is willing to take on the responsibility and pay for the cost of funeral arrangements and final disposition. To learn more about the role of a claimant, click here.

What are unclaimed ashes?

Unclaimed ashes are human remains resulting from cremation or aquamation that are not picked up or delivered to the deceased person's family or friends. In many cases, an executor, next of kin, or claimant has been appointed for final arrangements, however, unless instructed in the will or other end-of-life legal documentation, families may not be required to pick up the ashes after cremation or aquamation.

What happens to unclaimed remains in Canada?

The regulations for unclaimed remains vary between unclaimed bodies and unclaimed ashes. It also slightly differs between provinces but follows the same general protocol across provinces that have legislation that addresses the issue. This is discussed below.

What happens to unclaimed bodies in Canada

Before a body can be considered unclaimed, a reasonable search must be conducted to determine next of kin or find a claimant. The search is usually conducted by the government or the facility where the death occurred. For example, if a person dies in a nursing home with no next of kin, the hospital is responsible for the search. The circumstances of the death and the local jurisdiction are also taken into consideration.

Searching for the next of kin or claimant involves examining available medical records and local police records, as well as contacting emergency contacts, landlords, employers, etc. A body is held in morgues, funeral homes, or crematoriums during the search.

If no one is found to claim the body or no one is willing to come forward, the local or municipal government becomes responsible for handling and funding final arrangements. Typically a simple, low-cost burial is arranged.

Unclaimed bodies are usually buried in a cemetery in the municipality where the individual died. The body is sometimes placed in an unmarked grave or a simple grave marker may be provided. A small service is sometimes conducted as well. Embalming is rarely performed on unclaimed bodies out of respect, as it is an invasive process.

The process is similar for unidentified bodies. However, the search starts with an attempt to identify the deceased person, because locating a next of kin or a claimant is only possible if authorities know who the deceased person is. Burial arrangements for an unidentified body defaults to the local government which handles unidentified bodies similarly to unclaimed bodies. However, graves are more likely to remain unmarked.

Information about unidentified remains is also added to public databases for missing and unclaimed remains, such as the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, which is Canada's national centre that assists with missing persons and unidentified remains investigations.

Unclaimed cremated or hydrolyzed remains

The management of unclaimed remains from either cremation or alkaline hydrolysis (ashes) is less regulated than unclaimed bodies. Some provinces have little to no legislation on how unclaimed ashes are managed. However, funeral homes are typically expected to hold a deceased person's urn for a period of time (e.g., one year). Once that time has expired, the ashes can be buried, interred, or scattered at the facility's discretion.

Unclaimed ashes are stored at a funeral home, while the family is contacted and informed on what will happen to their loved one's remains after the allotted period.

In provinces where legislation regarding unclaimed ashes does not exist, funeral homes may be expected to store the ashes in their facility permanently.

Unclaimed remains in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan

The protocol for unclaimed remains in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan is discussed below.

Unclaimed bodies in Ontario

In Ontario, a claimant search is conducted when someone dies without a will and no next of kin is found or comes forward. The responsibility for this search depends on the circumstances of the death.

If a death is an accident or a suicide, the local coroner's office has jurisdiction and must conduct the claimant's search. However, if the death is expected, the facility where the death occurred is responsible for the search (e.g., hospital).

The claimant search process typically begins 24 hours to 10 days after death and is completed in a four to six-week period. If no claimant is found, the body is considered unclaimed.

During the first week, the responsible person(s) reviews records and known information about the death. During weeks two to five, the case may be referred to the Office of Public Guardian & Trustee Estates in Ontario and similar government organizations in other provinces. Documentation is submitted to the Regional Supervising Coroner's office in the final week if no claimant is found. (More information on this process can be found here and in this article).

Unclaimed ashes in Ontario

According to Section 53 of the provincial  Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, funeral homes in Ontario are required to keep cremated remains for one year. If the ashes are not claimed within that time, and the funeral home has made "reasonable efforts" to contact the deceased person's family or representative, the cremated remains can be interred in the ground or a niche.

Ontario funeral homes are also allowed to charge a refundable deposit to cover the interment of unclaimed ashes.

Unclaimed bodies in Nova Scotia

New legislation governing the processes for remains was introduced in Nova Scotia on April 1, 2022. It gives the Public Trustee the authority to:

  • determine when human remains are unclaimed and assume responsibility for the deceased.
  • make and pay for disposition arrangements.
  • recover costs from the estate when possible .

As per the amended Public Trustee Act, human remains (this does not apply to cremated remains) will be considered unclaimed if

  • the remains are uncremated
  • no person with any connection to the deceased claims the remains within the time prescribed by the regulations

Next of kin is  determined according to legislation in the Intestate Succession Act.

Learn more about the new legislation and the Public Trustee's authority in this news release and the amended Public Trustee Act. Additional rules for determining next of kin are also found in the Act.

Unclaimed ashes in Nova Scotia

According to this Nova Scotia government news release, unclaimed cremated remains are covered under the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Act and "most funeral homes have processes in place to address such circumstances." However, no specific protocol or legislation states how funeral homes must handle unclaimed cremated remains.

Some facilities, like the Mattatall-Varner Funeral Home in Truro, have posted unclaimed ashes on their website and Facebook page in hopes of finding family and friends of the deceased (see the source). However, many funeral homes keep unclaimed ashes in storage.

Unclaimed bodies in Saskatchewan

In Saskatchewan, the person designated as the "authorized decision-maker" controls the final disposition of a deceased person's body. The process for determining the authorized decision maker is found in Section 91 of the Funeral and Cremation Services Act.

Also, as per Section 91, if the identity of the authorized decision maker is unknown or no one is willing to take on that role, "the minister responsible for the administration of The Social Services Administration Act may designate a person to be the authorized decision-maker with the right to control the disposition by burial of the deceased person."

According to Section 50 of the Cemeteries Act, interment rights will be provided free of charge for an unclaimed body. Per this Act, The Cemeteries Regulations states that "a unit administrator pursuant to The Saskatchewan Assistance Regulations is prescribed as a person who may authorize interment of unclaimed human remains or a deceased indigent person."

Unclaimed ashes in Saskatchewan

Rules for unclaimed cremated remains in Saskatchewan can be found in Section 98 of the Funeral and Cremation Services Act. It states that funeral homes or crematoriums must store ashes at their facility for one year after cremation. After this period, the cremated remains can be buried, interred in a niche or columbarium, or scattered. (Learn about ash scattering regulations in Canada here).

Unclaimed remains in other provinces and territories

Regulations governing how unclaimed remains are handled in other Canadian provinces can be found linked below. However, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador currently do not have protocols governing unclaimed cremated remains (instead, we've linked what legislation is available). In addition, Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories have little no legislation regulating funeral rights.

British Columbia

Alberta

Manitoba

Quebec

Prince Edward Island

New Brunswick

Newfoundland and Labrador

Nunavut

  • No current legislation

Northwest Territories

  • No current legislation

Yukon

Questions?

Questions about unclaimed remains or ashes in Canada should be directed to the provincial or territorial government in your jurisdiction. To make cremation arrangements for a loved one with Eirene, see the locations we serve. You can also email us with questions about arrangements at support@eirene.ca.


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