For the last 35 years, when Gloria Slaker looked at the San Juan mountains, she has thought of her father, whose ashes were supposed to be scattered there.
"It was just a wonderful source of comfort looking over there,” said Slaker with a sigh. "He loved fishing and camping, and it just seemed like the perfect thing to do for my father."
But it turns out, she said, the funeral home never followed her final instructions, and all this time, his cremated remains and the remains of more than 170 others have been stored in the basement of a Montrose funeral home in western Colorado.
For many family members, their clearly stated wishes were ignored.
"I felt deceived," said Slaker, who said the funeral home operator had agreed to scatter the ashes. "I think someone should be held accountable, but I’m really not sure how it would come about."
"It happens from pure negligence," said Matt Boyle, the new owner of Rose Funeral Parlour, who said more than 40 relatives have come forward since he published a list of the names on the remains he found in the basement. "Every set of those cremated remains, especially the ones we’ve given back to the families, has a story behind them."
The cremated remains were apparently left in the basement by a funeral home operator who previously used the building. Joe Coleman, the landlord, said that several people have operated funeral homes at the location, and it would be difficult to determine who is responsible.
The oldest remains dated back to 1947, and Doris Babbel immediately recognized one name on the list.
"I had to read it twice -- my great uncle’s name, and I was really shocked, pretty much in disbelief because I had always understood that after he had died that his ashes had been spread over the San Juan mountains by the funeral home operators," said Babbel, who was only 4 years old when he died.
She said he had lived with her family when he was in declining health, and now she wonders if her other relatives whose remains were supposed to be scattered are also stored somewhere.
"I was really distressed, and it’s frustrating because I have no one I can talk to about it because, you know, everybody of that generation has gone," Babbel said. "So there’s nobody you can say ‘Do you know how this happened? How could this have happened?’"
She and her son plan to scatter her great uncle's ashes themselves this summer.
"Now, we can do what the family’s original wishes were. So it will be taken care of like it should have been," she said.
Boyle said several people in the small town thought their loved one's ashes had been buried in the Lawn Valley cemetery, only to learn they were still in the basement, and nothing was at the gravestone.
He said many community members have volunteered to scatter the ashes in the mountains for those who requested it, and there will be a special ceremony at Lawn Valley cemetery for the unclaimed remains at the end of the month.
"It’s going to be a way to put some closure for the remains and their families and for us," said Boyle.
Slaker said she may never know why her instructions weren't followed, but now she does know where her father has been laid to rest.
“Just beyond the bend in the river there," Slaker said, pointing from her back deck -- she and her family held a scattering ceremony last week at the same time she spread her mother's ashes. "Something so shocking in the beginning ended up so wonderful, and I just know that God’s hand was there over all of these events.”