The daily routine at the Goodwill store on McHenry Avenue in Modesto involves sorting through myriad boxes and bags of items people donate to the charity.
Whatever the employees can process and tag that day goes out on the floor or onto the shelves for sale. The rest is shipped to Stockton, where it is sorted and distributed to other Goodwill stores.
Mostly, we're talking clothing, books, household items, paintings and prints of paintings, with an occasional Miley Cyrus 3-D wall hanging thrown in (or out, depending upon one's opinion of fine art).
Last week, though, they received something that isn't so mundane. One of the employees came across a small box wrapped in white butcher paper. Normally, they open any sealed boxes. This time, they didn't. They didn't need to. It's very well-labeled, bearing a name, a date and the words "Ceres Memorial Park."
It contains ashes, or, as the funeral industry insiders call them, cremains.
How could that possibly happen, you ask? How could someone lose, misplace or worse yet intentionally discard Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, dear Aunt Sandy or Uncle Dusty?
It happens, though, amid a number of scenarios.
A widow or widower can't bear to bury the beloved. So the container of ashes rests on a shelf in the closet. Years pass. Eventually, the survivor dies, too. Those in charge of dismantling the household come across the cremains. Some might call the funeral home to arrange interment. But if the container isn't clearly marked, or hidden within another box of stuff they decide to donate, or if the ashes are in a decorative urn that looks like something out of the Martha Stewart Collection, there's no telling where it might end up.
"We'll get this pretty vase," Goodwill spokeswoman Sally Wooden said. "And guess what's inside? Grandpa's remains."
Similarly, cleanup crews hired by the banks find cremains among the items left behind by the previous owners of foreclosure homes. More diligent or compassionate workers might try to return the cremains to the funeral home or take them to the coroner's office. But others might not inspect such packages closely or simply don't care what's inside. The cremains might get donated with other items. Or they might get thrown out altogether.
Cremains turn up more frequently than one might think, Stanislaus County Chief Deputy Coroner Larry Seymour said.
"We get one about every other month or so," he said. "We've even had them left on the doorstep when we got to work in the morning."
When a person is cremated, a burial permit is created.
"It's a road map," Seymour said.
The permit will indicate whether the cremains were interred at a cemetery, or released to the funeral home, which turns them over to a family member or other responsible party. Virtually all the remains that turn up in unexpected places are those released to the families, Ceres Memorial Park manager Clay Guzman said.
Most often, the paper trail enables deputy coroners to track down survivors and return the remains to the families.
Recently, deputy coroner Marty Machado received a call from someone in Knights Ferry who had come upon a container of cremains along the Covered Bridge Trail on the south bank of the Stanislaus River.
"The lady died in 1998," he said.
Machado was able to trace the ashes to a funeral home in Sonora. The woman apparently wanted half of her ashes added to those of her late husband, spreading the rest along the Stanislaus River. Why they were left in a box along the river instead of being dispersed is open to speculation.
Deputies continue to search for kin.
In another case, a resident whose home was burglarized filed a police report detailing the stolen items, among them a blue velvet Crown Royal whiskey bag covering a cremains container.
"(The crooks) probably thought it was something valuable and took it," deputy coroner Tom Killian said. "Once they got to a safe location and looked to see what they had, they had somebody's cremains."
The report enabled deputies to return the cremains to the homeowner.
The ashes that turned up last week at the Goodwill store were of a 56-year-old Modesto woman who died in 2009. She had been cremated at Ceres Memorial Park, and her cremains were released to a funeral home and then to family members who lived here at the time.
The Goodwill employees contacted a Ceres cemetery official who, in turn, told them to take the box to the coroner. So far, though, the deputies haven't been able to locate any relatives.
If nothing else, it's certainly raised the awareness of those at the thrift store.
Said manager Kelly Rogers, "It's definitely not something you see every day."
The mundane clothing, books, paintings, housewares and even an occasional Miley Cyrus 3-D wall hanging will do just fine, thank you.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.