Fargo church buries a stranger's ashes

FARGO--The air was thick with the sweet scent of incense at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church as the parishioners gathered to bury a brother they know only by name.

The Rev. Jamie Parsley stands above Adolf Scott's urn in the memorial garden outside St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Wednesday in Fargo. (Rick Abbott / Forum News Service)

FARGO--The air was thick with the sweet scent of incense at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church as the parishioners gathered to bury a brother they know only by name.

"Adolf Scott" is what it says on the label at the bottom of an ornate black urn that someone found in July at a north-end apartment building not far from the church.

No one has come to claim the ashes, and the coroner has been unable to locate his next of kin.

"We don't know where he was born, where he died, what kind of life he lived; we do not know if he was a good person or a terrible person," the Rev. Jamie Parsley told the congregation. "Ultimately, tonight, none of that matters. What matters, tonight, is that we are welcoming him here into our midst. We're providing him with some dignity in his death."

Parishioners prayed and called him "Brother Adolf" as the burial rites instructed. Parsley, the priest-in-charge at the church, then led them out into the churchyard to bury him in the memorial garden.



A strange find

Scott might have died recently, or he might have died a century ago.

"In an urn, (ashes) last forever," said Cass County Coroner John Baird.

And a portion of the ashes appear to be missing, but it's also possible that Scott died as a baby, or that his ashes were shared among family members, Baird said.

When Parsley heard about the urn, he offered to bury it in the church's new memorial garden.

"One of the things we envisioned from day one was we would also be able to provide burial for the ashes of others," he said. "It's just a privilege for us to give him a place."

Parsley is willing to return the ashes if an owner claims them, but this could mark the end of a saga that began four months ago at Edgewood Court Apartments, 3301 Broadway.


On July 22, resident manager Paula Schmidt heard from several tenants that an urn was on top of the mailboxes, and she brought it inside. Typically, her residents know to visit the office when they've lost something, but no one came.

She called Fargo police five days later and gave them the urn, then put up signs in the building's entrances. Again, no response, which surprised Schmidt.

"If it was my loved one, their ashes, I definitely would be looking around if I lost it," she said Wednesday. "If you did leave something like that, wouldn't you want to pick it up?"

Maybe it was dropped off by a person driving by, she suggested, but the incident still puzzles her.

"That's probably the strangest thing that's happened to me since I've managed," said Schmidt, who's been managing apartments for 25 years.


Mystery man

Police handed the urn off to the Cass County Coroner's Office, which attempted to find records of the deceased Adolf Scott or his family. No luck.


Deputy Coroner Kriste Ross determined there were 147 Adolf Scotts, living and dead, in the United States. But when she called the departments of vital statistics, which track births and deaths, in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Winnipeg, "none had Adolf Scotts who were deceased," she said.

She checked the Cass County registries dating back to 1935, but discovered no Adolf Scott has lived here in the past 80 years. She also called all of the local funeral homes, "and nobody had handled those remains," she said.

It was a tedious process that took weeks, but what frustrates Ross most is "that (the ashes) are abandoned, for one, and then not being able to find the person or people who they belong to."


'Dust to dust'

In the dark churchyard, Parsley knelt on the ground as he carefully placed the urn in a hole next to a stone cross.

"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," he said and tossed a handful of dirt over the urn.

The parishioners followed as they helped bury Scott near the ashes of other parishioners.

Schmidt expressed relief that the church agreed to the burial.

"When somebody has died, you need to hold it in honor and respect," she said. "And I was kind of wondering what they were going to end up doing with it, but I'm so thankful that somebody agreed to do that."


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