Sunset Mesa

Chris Krashuk pores over lab results issued for ashes he had tested through Colorado Mesa University, in the wake of the Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors investigation.

Chris Kraschuk on Friday received the results of tests conducted on what was inside of his parents’ urns — but no closure.

An analysis by Colorado Mesa University found “the submitted substance is consistent with bone” on the contents of Ruth and Walter Kraschuk’s containers. Their son, however, said he does not know whose bone it might be: The FBI previously told him his father’s lower body was sold, as was his mother’s knee and spine.

“They don’t know who’s whose or even whose body is in the urns right now,” said Kraschuk.

Kraschuk is among those who turned to Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors to handle loved ones’ arrangements. The Montrose funeral home and associated Donor Services Inc., since closed, are under an unspecified federal investigation.

The state of Colorado in a separate action said in documents the funeral home returned the incorrect cremains to a family; returned concrete mix to others; embalmed a decedent without permission; conducted cremations without a disposition permit and did not keep proper records.

Other funeral homes and area officials raised questions about Sunset Mesa to the Department of Regulatory Agencies as far back as 2014, according to documents provided under a public records request.

The FBI served search warrants at Sunset Mesa in February, weeks after the business was featured in a Reuters series about “body brokering” in the United States.

A week after the raid, the state suspended the crematory and funeral home registrations of Sunset Mesa owner Megan Hess, who denied the Reuters report.

In an August stipulation to permanently revoke her registrations, Hess agreed not to operate another funeral home in Colorado. She did not admit to the state’s allegations.

Affected families have more recently been sharing what the FBI reportedly told them. These allegations, as well those detailed in two civil suits, are that bodies were donated, either whole or in part, without the knowledge or permission of survivors.

The FBI is testing several sets of ashes as part of its investigation.

Colorado Mesa University volunteered to test cremains separately of that probe, so families could potentially know the contents of the urns that were returned to them.

The university began releasing analyses Friday; Kraschuk was one of the first 30 to be invited to collect urns/containers and results.

The analysis was intended to tell bone from non-bone substances, such as concrete or cat litter. The tests do not discern between human and non-human bone and cannot determine whether remains belong to a specific individual, the reports Kraschuk received explain.

Cremains may vary in color due to heat; generally, the longer cremation takes and the higher the heat, the whiter the remains.

Particle size can vary between very fine, silt-like consistency to “small, raisin-sized pieces,” depending on the grinder used by a particular funeral home, the report also explains. When a grinder is not used, the ashes can contain “relatively large” pieces of bone and teeth.

CMU’s testing consisted of looking at the substances’ physical properties, as well as a microscopic examination and a chemical analysis.

When bone is reduced to its inorganic components, it has two major structures — external, compact bone and trabecular, or “spongy’ bone from the inside, the reports explain.

Between 60 and 70 percent of bone is inorganic, mainly calcium phosphate “and so variations in the elements present, variations of the expected calcium/phosphorus ratio and elevated levels of what are normally minor elements in bone can be used to distinguish bone from non-bone components,” the CMU paperwork states.

Weight of cremains is roughly proportional to the weight of the decedent who was cremated; researchers in a 2011 study were able to differentiate male from female “although cremains’ weight decreases with age,” per the reports.

Generally, determining sex from bone would be “highly unusual,” Melissa Connor, director of CMU’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, said. “We have found that the Sunset Mesa cremains were not ground well, but it would take a fairly large piece of bone to make that determination.”

The lab as part of testing sifted the ash to look for such “inclusions” as surgical devices like staples and stents; zipper teeth; snaps or rivets; and nails and screws that fasten together cremation containers.

In the urn labeled as Ruth Kraschuck, a CMU scientist found three snap sockets, a snap stud and a snap button container.

Her son said on Friday his mother had been cremated wearing a dress.

“The overall weight of the cremains are lighter than would be expected unless some were scattered elsewhere,” the report on Ruth concludes. “The inclusions are consistent with clothing and the microscopic and elemental analyses are consistent with bone.”

In the urn labeled as Walter Kraschuk, analysts found 34-plus “lumps of unidentified dark shiny material,” an estimated 110 or more small glass and plastic fragments; 19 lumps of unidentified melted metal; a surgical needle; a piece of wire; a metal tooth cap; clothing hooks and two snap buttons.

“The weight is light for the cremains of an adult male,” the report on Walter concludes.

“There was some sort of glass included with the rest of the remains and other inclusions are consistent with surgical or dental material and material from the funeral industry. The elemental and microscopic analyses are consistent with bone.”

Deb Schum, a Hotchkiss resident who unofficially spearheads a group of families who used Sunset Mesa for arrangements, said the CMU results might not be meaningful, because of situations like the Kraschuk matter — bone in the ashes, but reports from the FBI indicating not all of a decedent’s body was cremated.

“This is horrifying,” Schum said. “I suspect that all of the ashes have been co-mingled and no one got a single body’s cremains returned.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist and the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.


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