Jan. 14, 1956, marked the eighth consecutive morning Boston woke to gray skies and freezing rain. It was also the last day Albert Hitchcock, a 63-year-old World War I veteran, walked this earth in good health. By evening he would be hit by a car and laid up with a broken ankle. Three months later he would die of a pulmonary embolism.
Hitchcock's niece took care of the arrangements. She collected $2,485 from his life insurance policy and had his body cremated through a South End funeral home. And there, in a dusty cardboard box inside a basement filing cabinet, his ashes have sat ever since. Alongside them, the unclaimed ashes of another 100 souls -- some of whom died as long as six decades ago -- await a final disposition.
Arthur Hasiotis, director of the Commonwealth Funeral Service in the South End, whose father took care of Hitchcock's cremation, said he keeps the cremains in case anyone ever arrives to pick them up. But it is a day he does not believe will ever come.
''In the meantime, what can I do with them?" Hasiotis asked. ''Nothing. So I just let them sit."
Tens of thousands of abandoned cremains are piling up in funeral home storage closets, basements, and utility rooms nationwide. Some funeral directors send out annual letters pleading for the next of kin to pick them up. Many return unopened.
What can funeral directors do? If they pay for burial themselves, costs could quickly run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and if they dispose of them without permission, they might be sued. Even with some state guidelines, no one wants to tell a long-lost relative that grandpa's ashes are gone.
The issue is growing with the popularity of cremation. In 1975, fewer than 125,000 people were cremated nationwide, according to the Cremation Association of North America. By last year, that number was 700,000. About 5 percent, or 35,000, of those remains were not claimed last year. The number of cremations is projected to reach nearly 1.5 million by 2025, with 70,000 of those remains expected to be unclaimed.
''It's a big problem, and everybody is dealing with it," said Joel Magliozzi, who owns funeral homes in Medford and Andover and has ashes dating to the 1920s.
Seven years ago, the state passed a regulation that allows funeral directors to dispose of remains legally eight months after cremation. They must first, however, send a registered letter to the next of kin, said Anne Collins, director of the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure, which oversees the funeral board.
But many funeral directors either are not aware of the law, or feel that the registered-letter notification is not explicit enough in granting permission to dispose of remains, said David Walkinshaw, spokesman for the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association and owner of the Saville & Grannan Funeral Home in Arlington.
''It would be hard to say, 'If you don't pick up your mom in so many days, we're going to dispose of her,' " Walkinshaw said. ''We treat the remains with all the respect you would accord a person's body."
Many of the cremains, which weigh between 3 and 7 pounds, belong to people without living relatives. Particularly common are nursing home residents who had not been visited for years. But no funeral home director wants an unexpected visit from a long-lost relative.
''It's a funeral director's worst nightmare," said Hasiotis.
Among the cremains in Hasiotis's basement are those of two Japanese nationals who died during World War II. Hasiotis thinks the nationals may have been interned in the United States and committed suicide after somehow getting to Boston. The box next to Hitchcock's contains the cremains of Lillian Abram, a Boston woman who suffered from depression. In 1956, at age 70, she jumped out of a building on Harrison Avenue, according to her death certificate filed in the Massachusetts Department of Vital Records.
According to probate court records and newspaper stories, Hitchcock was struck by a car on an icy road in Boston.
Born in Indiana, Hitchcock served as a baker aboard the USS Montana from 1914 to 1917. He was living in Roxbury and working as an elevator operator at the time of his death. He owned no property, had no children, and had just $26 in the bank when he died. His niece who collected his insurance policy was his only heir.
''A lot of these people were the forgotten of the living and after they died they became the forgotten of the dead," said Thomas Johnson of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. ''If I knew I had clothes at the cleaners, I'd pick them up. If I had a loved one at the cemetery, I'd pick them up."
Some of the same factors driving the popularity of cremations are also increasing the number of unclaimed remains, said Jack Springer, president of the Chicago-based Cremation Association of North America. More elderly retire to states far away from the communities where they lived most of their lives. Many die alone, with no living relatives or friends, and often a nursing home director follows through on their wishes for cremation.
In other cases, relatives have paid for the cremation, but they cannot -- or will not -- take the final step to pick up the remains.
Some cremains find a permanent resting place. In 1938, an author from Atlanta died while he was in the area promoting his book, a dictionary of facts. The man was cremated and the ashes ended up on a shelf at the Joseph Dee & Son Funeral Home in Concord, where they sat for the next 67 years.
Finally, Charles Dee, the great-great-grandson of the funeral home founder who oversaw the cremation, searched the Internet with his sister to try to find relatives of the deceased. After several months, they gave up. So they bought a plot in a Concord graveyard and they buried the ashes, along with the Atlanta man's book of facts.
''We felt it was time," Dee said. ''After five generations, it was time to let him go."
Douglas Belkin can be reached at email@example.com.