A legal team that was seeking a bankrupt funeral home's financial records instead made a macabre discovery: nearly 100 boxes of cremated remains, some dating back more than two decades, stashed in a suburban storage unit.
The discovery has been a comfort for a few families that received the ashes of lost loved ones, but a conundrum for officials trying to figure out what to do with the rest.
Devotis Lee of Atlanta recently received the remains of her father, Julius Griffin, more than 10 years after his death in June 1999.
"It made me feel good, wonderful. It was fantastic," Lee said.
She said she had tried repeatedly to contact the funeral home several years ago but finally gave up in frustration. Then the Fulton County medical examiner's office got in touch to say the ashes had been found.
It's not clear whether any state laws were violated, but authorities are trying to determine whether sanctions should be brought against the Sellers Brothers Funeral Home or its last operator.
Juanita Sellers Stone, whose family operated the Atlanta funeral home for decades, said she put the remains in the storage units _ along with furniture, files and other items from the business _ about a year and a half ago because the funeral home had declared bankruptcy in May 2006 and its building was set to be demolished. But she said she never withheld remains _ called "cremains" by people in the funeral business _ from families.
"That's impossible," she said. "I've never been out of touch. Everyone had an opportunity to retrieve the cremains. That's one reason for keeping them, so the families could get them when they wanted."
Stone said she's seen people weep for joy when they picked up the ashes of a relative who died years before. She didn't want to deprive any family of that chance.
Sharon Seay, executive director of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, said the situation isn't unusual.
"You'd be surprised how many families don't come to pick up their cremains," she said. "In the Sellers case, she was trying to accommodate the families. She's spending money to store the cremains so the families can get them if they want."
The 96 boxes of cremated remains, some dating back to the mid-1980s, were found in July in three storage spaces by the staff of Neil Gordon, the funeral home's bankruptcy trustee.
"They were shocked and dismayed," Gordon said. "You can imagine, you're looking for books and financial records and you come across something like this instead."
It took months to figure out where the people had died and to get probate courts in six counties to approve releasing the remains to the appropriate medical examiner or coroner.
News of the remains was first reported Wednesday by WSB-TV in Atlanta. The station reported that their existence had been little known, even within the law firm of the bankruptcy trustee.
The Fulton County medical examiner's office received the bulk, 85 boxes, on Nov. 13 and is trying to notify the families.
"We were shocked when we realized not only that this had happened but also the scope," said Tami Schroder, a senior investigator with the office.
The identification and notification process could take months because little information is available for many of the boxes. Some of the people died more than 20 years ago and their relatives have since died or moved, Schroder said. Some of the dead were "transient," living in rooming houses in Atlanta or in nursing homes where no family came to visit, she said.
By Thursday, the office had notified nine families that the remains were available. Four families received the remains, three said they didn't want them and two hadn't returned messages. Two families told Schroder they had tried unsuccessfully in the past to retrieve the remains from Sellers Brothers.
Nine boxes had no identification and will be buried, along with any cremated remains that families say they don't want, in a public plot. Four boxes were still being held Thursday at Gordon's office, pending release by the appropriate probate court.
State law is unclear on whether it is improper for a funeral home to keep cremated remains for years. One section of the law says a funeral home may store unclaimed remains onsite. But another section says remains must be turned over to a coroner to be buried if they are not claimed within 60 days from when notification of cremation is mailed to a family member or other authorized person.
It is not clear whether notification of cremation was ever sent to the families in this case because the funeral home's records were disorganized, said Jeremy Ware, a lawyer who works with Gordon.
The secretary of state's inspector general is investigating and will turn over findings to the Georgia Board of Funeral Service, which will determine whether sanctions are appropriate, said secretary of state spokesman Matt Carrothers.