Sue Radcliffe’s ashes lay in a cardboard box on the kitchen counter of her niece’s home in Albemarle County.
A bright red band identified the contents of the box as human remains. Several U.S. Postal Service markers covered the top of the box. This included one that said “Signature Required”. There was the problem.
Barrineau Brill, Radcliffe’s niece, was so worried about having her aunt’s ashes delivered safely by post that she had them shipped with the promise that she or her husband would have to sign for them when they arrived.
Instead, someone placed them in Brill’s mailbox down a winding road from his hilltop home and never told anyone, let alone asked for the required signature.
When she found Aunt Sue’s unsecured ashes, Brill boiled over in anger. In the past, she and her husband, Greg, had had oversized postal packages stolen when they didn’t fit in the letterbox and were left on the ground at its base.
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Brill had volunteered to receive Radcliffe’s ashes from his grieving cousin in Florida and transport them to the burial next to Radcliffe’s deceased husband at the US Naval Academy. The Albemarle woman worked carefully to avoid any mistakes. Now she felt like she had dodged a bullet that should never have been fired.
“If I had known that no one would come for a signature, I would have had the remains sent to my daughter in Crozet,” she said.
She headed for the post office. It was a situation that demanded an apology and an explanation. She had one, but not the other. The postmaster was unavailable to speak to him, he was told upon arriving at the post office. A supervisor was. The supervisor came out the back and said she was sorry the package was mishandled. She never gave a reason or promised to investigate.
Later that day, Brill received a message that the tracking number was not working. Brill had no idea what that meant. The message offered no further details.
“They left me a number to call,” she said. “I called the number twice but no one answered. I still haven’t had an answer.
On Monday, The Daily Progress asked the Postal Service for an explanation of what happened. Here is what a spokesperson replied via email:
“Information on how to properly package and ship cremated remains can be found at https://about.usps.com/publications/pub139.pdf. Additional services such as return receipt, insurance, signature required and signature waiver are available for sending cremated remains. We apologize that a signature was not obtained upon delivery in this case, as requested by the customer. We will study the issue and strengthen our delivery requirements with carriers.
That’s all Brill wanted to hear. “If the post office just called and said, ‘We’re so sorry. We will investigate. I’m not looking for anyone. The mistake just needs to be acknowledged so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
There is a lesson here for all government agencies that work hard and want to do well. Things happen. Even with the best intentions, people make mistakes. Acknowledging these mistakes and trying to fix them before moving on shouldn’t be too much to ask.
All will end well in the saga of Sue Radcliffe. Brill and part of her family will soon carry her ashes to Annapolis and give her the farewell she wanted.
It is too late to change what happened with the delivery of his remains. What can change is the understanding that some mistakes have more impact than others. The mishandling of human remains is high on this list.
In the future, the Postal Service and all other agencies should strive to offer explanations with apologies. This will go a long way in helping them prove they care about their customers.