The Postal Service is told to tighten up procedures for shipping urns full of human ashes

The human remains of recently deceased individuals often require transporting over long distances. In the case of cremated remains, they often go via the Posta...

The human remains of recently deceased individuals often require transporting over long distances. In the case of cremated remains, they often go via the Postal Service. And the Postal Office of Inspector General has found, USPS needs to improve some of its procedures for handling them. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with audit director Amy Jones.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And what prompted this inquiry? It sounds like maybe some cremated remains, which I presume were in a kind of expensive container, got lost or spilled or what happened? What made you look at this?

Amy Jones So this report is in response to a congressional inquiry from Sen. Mike Braun’s office. Senior leadership asked that we assess the effectiveness of those procedures for accepting and handling cremated remains within the Postal Service network to ensure that the remains are handled with care.

Tom Temin Got it. And these are brought to postal offices locally. I mean, how does it usually happen? And who’s doing the mailing? Would it be the individuals or would it be professional handlers of cremated remains?

Amy Jones So, Tom, that’s a great question. There are two ways that they come into the Postal Service network. One is by the customers who wish to mail their cremated remains. In addition, there are companies that do ship these cremated remains out to recipients.

Tom Temin All right. And what can go wrong? What are some of the issues you uncovered?

Amy Jones So what we found overall is that they were not in compliance with those acceptance procedures, properly labeling them and inducting them into the network. What we also found is that procedures for monitoring shipments of cremated remains within the processing facilities were not always followed. And we also found an opportunity to reduce the potential risk of missing and damaged cremated remains by enhancing packaging requirements.

Tom Temin Got it. And these then come with special requirements already extant in the postal system because of the nature of them which are sacred to people, let’s put it that way. So it’s a matter of following the procedures that are already mandated to begin with.

Amy Jones Yes. So customers, if they are shipping their own cremated remains in their own boxes, are required to use 30 boxes and follow the Postal Service instructions, which are outlined on their website on how to ship those cremated remains. In addition, they can bring them into local facilities who will help them package and ship those cremated remains appropriately.

Tom Temin Did anything go wrong that came to light? Because it sounds like a request from a senator? Probably it sounds like a constituent complained that something got lost or damaged.

Amy Jones So we did not identify any lost or damaged cremated remains. We just identified the potential that there could be if the procedures were not followed appropriately.

Tom Temin Yeah, because these do besides the value of the fact that it’s someone’s beloved remains, these urns are heavy and they’re expensive. So it’s not like mailing something in a mailing tube, like a poster. These are substantial packages, aren’t they

Amy Jones Some of them are. So the urns, the fully submitted cremated remains are heavy. There are other ways that people will ship cremated remains. We found third-party companies who ship cremated remains of loved ones and pets through articles such as jewelry and works of art. So there are different sizes of cremated remains shipped.

Tom Temin Yeah, as a matter of fact, I still have one of our dogs ashes in a nice wooden box, as a matter of fact. What did you recommend then?

Amy Jones So overall, what we recommended and some of the recommendations that the Postal Service agreed to follow were to develop a process for communicating these procedures to employees to ensure that they are accepted appropriately. And we also recommended that we implement some guidance to verify that the cremated remains are packaged and prepared in accordance with policy. And lastly, we recommended that they ensure kit boxes for cremated remains are readily available.

Tom Temin So if someone brings in remains, the local office would have what they need to ship those things.

Amy Jones Yes. In addition, if a customer wants to order their own pit boxes before bringing them into the postal facility, we recommended that the Postal Service ensure that they get those timely.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Amy Jones. She’s audit director in the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General. And not to get too fine into the details, but are sometimes remains mailed not in the final container that they will be reposing in, but maybe, and for lack of a better word, the equivalent of a Ziploc bag so that you really need to have them boxed well, versus when they’re in a steel or metal type of container or wood.

Amy Jones So the Postal Service does have requirements for packaging, one of them being a sift proof container where it has to be sealed in a plastic bag, then placed within an appropriate box that’s sturdy and durable. So that is their requirement to ensure that if anything were to break or any damage were to incur, that that would be concealed. They also recommend that they put a valid address inside of those box just in case that box breaks. And comes damaged.

Tom Temin Sure. Now, you made six recommendations and the Postal Service agreed with only two of them. The first two were develop and implement a process for reoccurring communications to the locals and telling them what they have to do. Also, develop and implement guidance requiring retail clerks to verify or prepared package. They agreed with those recommendations to make sure people are trained and knowledgeable at the local retail level, but they disagreed with the other recommendations to update the procedures and reiterate the procedures for monitoring along the route to the final destination and so on. Why would they? I mean, I guess you can’t attribute the motives to the management, but what’s going on here that they disagreed with so many of the recommendations?

Amy Jones So oftentimes we see some of our recommendations not being agreed upon. So we work with the Postal Service to find a way that they can resolve these disagreements. And currently, we’re working through that resolution process in a way that we both agreed to close out these recommendations on a schedule that the Postal Service agrees to.

Tom Temin Yeah, because like, for example, develop a plan to ensure cremated remain kit boxes are readily available to customers. There’s a lot of locations where this basically every post office that has a retail window then would have to have the supplies. And maybe they’re worried that they can get the supplies to every postal branch.

Amy Jones Well, that was actually one recommendation. So we had three recommendations they agreed to, and they agreed to ensure that those kit boxes are readily available. So that one is something that they do plan to do.

Tom Temin Okay. Anything else we we need to know about this? Luckily, you know, that’s the only way remains are mailed anyhow. The airlines have to deal with the other way. And that’s not part of your situation.

Amy Jones Well, I would like to let customers know that the Postal Service does make every attempt to deliver those cremated remains. If the Postal Service exhausts all resources to identify the sender or recipient due to mislabeling, damage or invalid address, they do take care of those cremated remains and hold on to them until a resolution is found for delivery.

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