Along a narrow road in St. Charles Township's North Cemetery on Thursday sat a plain, rectangular mausoleum. Inside, marble-faced crypts held the remains of local residents that date back to the late 1800s.
At the end of a 100-foot hallway, up near the ceiling, stood one last unoccupied and open crypt. In a ceremony lasting about 20 minutes, the crypt became the final resting place for 161 people whose family either forgot or abandoned their ashes to the whims of the Kane County coroner's office or a local funeral home.
Some had been unclaimed for decades. Others, including babies with deaths painful to the memory, died more recently. One set of ashes was simply left in an urn by a tree near the entrance to the cemetery one day.
"I never had any idea there were so many unclaimed people until we started asking," St. Charles Township Supervisor John Arthur Anderson said.
It was a lesson Kane County Coroner Rob Russell has been living ever since he took office at the end of 2012 and found 47 boxes of human cremains sitting on a dusty shelf in a storage closet.
For months, he and his staff worked to place the ashes with next of kin. In the end, he reunited seven of those cremains with family.
But 40 boxes remained and were eventually joined with 121 similar boxes of cremains from St. Charles funeral homes for a joint burial Thursday. The crypt was volunteered as a final resting place by township officials when they learned of the unusual situation.
"Hopefully, this brings a little more integrity and respect back to the office," Russell said. "You do what's right because it's right. Everything else will fall in place."
The Rev. John P. Nelson of Hosanna! Lutheran Church in St. Charles delivered a memorial service for the cremains. He said it was unlike any other he's ever attended in his nearly 27 years of religious service.
He is familiar with delivering comforting words with maybe only knowing a sentence or two about the person who died. But the lives of the 161 people in the crypt proved more mysterious.
"For these people, we don't even have one sentence (of information)," Nelson said.
"We know their names. We know the date of their death. And yet, we should honor them. It says a lot about the character of a community the way they honor their dead. God has delivered these people. We need to provide a place for rest for those who I call this day the 'Saints of St. Charles.'"
There is room for up to 40 more boxes of cremains in the vault. But Russell said he hopes the only reason the vault is ever reopened is to place another set of ashes with a family member.
"How they lived is not the point of this service," Russell said.
"No one claimed them as they sat on a dusty shelf. By doing this, we set right that which was wrong."