Henry M. Knudsen died June 27, 1964. His body was cremated, and his remains (known as cremains) sat on a shelf at Hillcrest Mortuary in Medford, Ore., waiting to be claimed for a proper burial. But no one came. According to Oregon state law, his ashes could have been disposed of after 180 days, but the staff at the mortuary hoped that a family member or friend would come and claim them.
Decades passed, and still no one came. Then, in early 2021, members of the Knights of Columbus in Oregon approached the funeral home staff to collect unclaimed cremains, including Knudsen’s, as part of an initiative to live out the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead.
On May 2, during the Oregon State Council’s 113th Convention, Henry was finally laid to rest along with 142 others during a ceremony held at Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Klamath Falls. Nearly 100 people, including Bishop Liam Cary of the Diocese of Baker, Mayor Carol Westfall of Klamath Falls and Capt. Ryan Brosterhous of the local police department, attended the ceremony.
“We gave them a proper burial and we didn't leave our neighbor behind,” said Ron Boyce, state deputy of Oregon. “That’s what the Knights are about. We don’t leave anybody behind; we make sure that everybody’s taken care of — the living and dead.”
Knights collected ashes from funeral homes in Klamath, Lake, Jackson, and Harney counties, and ashes were also sent from California. The cremains included those of seven veterans, all of whom received military honors at the burial. Also laid to rest were the cremains of an unidentified individual found in the woods by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as ashes dating to 1976 with the label, “Save for daughter.”
Joseph Schaecher, a member of Rogue River Council in 1594 in Medford, was one of the Knights who read the names of the deceased as the remains were lowered into the ground.
“As with all ceremonies, when names are read aloud, you get a small sense of the person which that name represents,” Schaecher said. “Twice I had to read the name ‘unknown.’ That name, ‘unknown,’ left such a hollow and empty feeling of loss and a sense of unresolved emotions.”
In the hopes that the cremains would eventually be claimed, the Knights put them into 10-inch PVC tubes, known as ossuaries, to keep better track of where the ashes are buried.
The efforts of the state council were led by Knights from Mt. McLoughlin Council 2255 in Klamath Falls, including Ipo Ross and Benjamin Quen, who serve as a manager and president of Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery, respectively.
Ross became aware of 30 unclaimed cremains during visits to local funeral homes as part of his work at the cemetery. He asked the staff why the remains were still on the shelves. The answers shocked him.
“The answers were that they had no one to claim them; no one wanted to pay for their burial; they were forgotten; and there was no contact,” Ross said. “As a Catholic, this is not acceptable to me as it raised the question of one of our corporal works of mercy: to bury the dead.”
Ross approached his brother Knights and the board of directors at Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery to gather resources and funds to bury the cremains. Council 2255 agreed to fund the burial of the cremains and the cemetery donated a plot called Potter’s Field. Quen canvassed other funeral homes in the area and discovered the amount of unclaimed cremains totaled nearly 150. He felt called to provide these people with proper burials. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Quen researched the genealogy of the ashes to determine whether they were veterans and to gather more information into each person’s backstory.
“One of the things that was kind of a surprise to us, and it was very emotional, is that one of the cremains that we ran across was actually a four-time Olympian. She was a fencer, and she was at four different Olympics,” Quen said.
The first burial ceremony organized by Council 2255 was held Nov. 18, 2017. Since then, they have buried nearly 300 cremains in Potter’s Field, and 14 were later claimed by family members, including the former Olympian.
In a column for the state council’s newsletter, Larry Mullaly of St. Augustine Council 11258 in Central Point, reflected on the most recent burial last May.
“Although none of the deceased were known to us, we had treated the cremains with respect, and we prayed for their souls,” he wrote. “It is an honor for the Knights of Columbus to be an instrument in remembering our deceased brothers and sisters while we lay them to rest — a poignant reminder that the life and death of every human being is situated in the greater mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection that envelopes us all.”
The Knights of Columbus honors the dignity of every human life from conception to natural death. Learn more about our pro-life programs here.
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