Saturday, September 28, 2013

Indigent Burials; Who Pays?


William R. Gardner, the President of Sturtevant Funeral Home, Inc. in Portsmouth, VA. kept an elderly woman's body at his funeral home in Portsmouth for more than a month. She came from a nursing home with no money and no known family. After weeks of searching, one of Gardner's funeral directors found a relative, but the person couldn't afford to pay to dispose of the remains.

In the past, taxpayers would pick up the tab. The General Assembly cut state assistance for indigent burials as part of a larger $2.4 million reduction in general relief aid to localities.

In Portsmouth, the total available funds will drop to $250 from $750. That's not enough to cover a $50 medical examiner's fee and minimal cremation expenses. Funeral homes often donate services in such cases, but Gardner fears dwindling public assistance will lead to more unclaimed bodies, and he said he isn't sure what happens then.

Indigent Burials are actually cremated

The cases are called indigent burials, but that is a misnomer as most are cremated.  In some states, multiple bodies are placed in unmarked pine boxes and buried in mass graves.

Tommy Graves, president of Graves Funeral Home, estimated that he gets about three indigent cases a month. "You're just seeing more and more and more of it," he said. "In days gone by, people were more prepared for death.”

"The casket company doesn't have to look at this family crying. I do," Graves said.

Indigent options vary from state to state

Families in Norfolk, VA are allowed to provide up to $1,500 of their own money and still get $500 in public assistance. That might be enough for a burial if they have a free cemetery plot and a funeral home is willing to work with them, reducing their service fees.

In North Carolina, the state leaves the assistance to the counties, which pay only if the body is unclaimed; otherwise, the funeral home or crematory often must absorb the cost, said Paul Harris, Executive Director of the North Carolina Board of Funeral Services.

In West Virginia, the state reimburses up to $1,250.

In North Dakota, the state doesn't pay, but counties must provide at least $1,500, and some offer more.

In Virginia, the state is projected to spend about $610,000 in the fiscal year ending today on the assistance, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.
The county steps in only when no one claims a body and public assistance varies across the country.

Most of us assume that indigent means "homeless." While many homeless are indigent, indigent can also refer to families who are struggling to meet basic needs such as food, heat, clean drinking water, clothing and shelter. 

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