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Sunday, March 18, 2018 1:00 am

Indigents' burial cost a growing burden

Even with township aid, funeral homes lose money

RON SHAWGO | The Journal Gazette

It's a business decision that some would never consider – and many don't.

For burying the indigent, Indiana funeral homes get a fraction of what they normally would charge. In Allen County, that amount can be less than a seventh of the regular cost, one funeral director said. As a result, some funeral homes don't participate.

And it's not just Indiana. The number of funeral homes willing to bury or cremate the unclaimed dead is dwindling as government reimbursements fail to keep up with expenses, the Associated Press reported last month.

The $1,110 reimbursement for funeral directors who bury the indigent and unclaimed in Massachusetts hasn't risen in 35 years. The total cost for their time, the casket, transportation of the corpse and a burial plot can be double that, they say.

In Indiana, township trustees, using public money, reimburse some costs. That amount varies by township and has not changed in decades for some, authorities say.

“You're going to find that some funeral directors are getting the same reimbursement from their township trustee that they were getting 25 years ago,” said Andy Clayton, executive director of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association.

The unclaimed dead are those who are homeless, estranged from family or who outlived their relatives and left no money behind. Their funerals are left for the public to pay.

In Wayne Township, the largest township in Allen County, the trustee paid $102,321 last year for 91 burials and cremations, said Austin Knox, deputy Wayne Township trustee. Reimbursements “haven't risen for us in a little bit, but the (funeral) directors have all worked with us and the cemeteries have all worked with us as well,” he said.

The Wayne trustee has standard reimbursement prices: $750 for a funeral; $1,200 if the person is “oversize.” Burial reimbursement is $700; $1,300 if oversize. Cremation is $175, which is added to the funeral cost.

Among Allen County's 20 townships, Wayne pays the most, while others reimburse hundreds of dollars less, said Britton Claghorn, funeral director at D.O. McComb and Sons in Fort Wayne. While he understands townships have limited dollars, Claghorn said the reimbursement “doesn't cover our costs for most things, let alone our staff and everything else.”

At McComb, a cremation funeral can cost $2,000, and a basic burial with an hour visitation, funeral and printing costs $6,000 to $7,000, he said.

“We can charge what's on our (general price list) for the township trustee to pay, which is no way that probably could happen,” he said. “The township trustee would run out of money pretty quick. So it's just been our practice at McCombs to do that. Everybody's entitled to a fair and decent burial. That's what we want to do.”

About 15 states provide some funding for unclaimed-body burials or cremations, while the rest have pushed the cost to local governments, said Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association.

Ohio, for example, used to pay $750 before shifting the burden to local governments. Now, some communities offer a set fee, while some smaller towns often won't even budget for it, and funeral directors have to fight to just get paid $350, Gilligan said.

“A lot of times, they just do it as good citizens,” he said.

In West Virginia, state money for the cremation or burial of the indigent was set to run out early this year because of drug overdose deaths, said Robert Kimes, executive director of the state funeral directors association.

Directors who bury the indigent and unclaimed from March on will have to try recouping money from the state later, but there's no guarantee, Kimes said.

In Georgia's Floyd County, Coroner Gene Proctor last year was calling five or six funeral homes every time he had an unclaimed body before he could find one willing to bury it for the $1,250 the county provided.

“I couldn't blame them because ... they're a business, and they have to make money to survive, and here I am asking them to cost themselves money,” said Proctor, who handled about 90 unclaimed sets of remains last year.

There are numerous funeral homes in northeast Indiana and elsewhere in the state that choose not to provide funerals for the unclaimed, Claghorn and Clayton said.

Besides McComb and Sons, the Wayne Township trustee paid burial and cremation reimbursements to 14 funeral homes and cemeteries last year, according to disbursements reported to the state.

Funeral homes “have the right to say 'I'm not going to care for you because I can't afford to,' and then that narrative gets played out negatively in the public,” Clayton said. “It's not that they don't want to serve the poor, they feasibly can't and keep their doors open.”

Clayton acknowledged “a frustration with our constituency that there is no set uniform reimbursement.”

“We want to provide for the living and the dead. That's the charge that we have willingly accepted as practitioners,” he said. “And we're not asking to be profiteers off the poor. I mean, we don't even begin to cover our hard costs, let alone our time.”

rshawgo@jg.net

The Associated Press contributed to this story.