County’s most anonymous residents have ally after death
It’s easy to miss six modest gravestones pressed together on one plot in Grand Junction’s Orchard Mesa Cemetery.
The flat markers in the midst of the cemetery’s more than 90 sprawling acres of carefully pruned trees and manicured lawns represent the final resting places of a number of Mesa County folks who died without any family or friends to claim their remains.
For the approximately 1,300 people who die in Mesa County each year, about a dozen die alone. Either family can’t be located, or family members have long washed their hands of the deceased and refuse to pay for burial costs.
If the deceased were covered under Medicare, their ashes may be buried in a group grave such as the one at the city cemetery. Military veterans, too, are ensured a burial. But others fall through the cracks, and that’s where court-appointed Grand Junction attorney Charles Reams comes in.
As the county’s public administrator, Reams is called after investigators with the Mesa County Coroner’s Office arrive on the scene to find someone has died without a trace of a next of kin.
When Reams was first appointed to the role in 1989, the work of public administrator took only a portion of his private law practice. That balance has since shifted.
“I’m busy enough,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed.”
As public administrator, Reams secures the assets of the deceased and works as a conservator. However, not all of Reams’ cases include the deceased. Sometimes he’s appointed on cases in which families or acquaintances have stolen money from the elderly or other people referred to him by the county’s Department of Human Services.
Reams’ first step in a case usually is to secure a deceased person’s estate. That can mean ensuring animals are cared for and cash and bank accounts are secured. He then works to locate a will for the deceased person and arranges a cremation.
Local funeral homes share the duties of cremating people who have no known survivors, a process which costs about $1,500. Reams attempts to reimburse the costs to funeral homes, but that’s not always possible if someone dies with little or no assets.
Even Reams takes a gamble working on some cases in which he’s not reimbursed for his time. Reams is paid after a case is closed according to the number of hours worked on a person’s estate. Leftover money and proceeds from auctions are absorbed by the state.
“Oftentimes if there’s a lot of assets (in the deceased’s estate) there’s family willing to come forward,” Reams said, noting the irony of the business.
Charles Reams follows in the footsteps of his father, Warren, 88, who served as the county’s public administrator from the mid-1970s to 1989.
Sometimes, officials at local funeral homes drop off urns of ashes of Charles Reams cases.
He sometimes distributes them during a small ceremony at his favorite vacation place, Lake Powell.
“I’m not going to throw them away,” he said. “To me, that’s a nice place to be.”