The number of indigent burials has steadily climbed over the last three years.
• 2009 - 62
• 2010 - 71
• 2011- 80
• 2012 (to date) - 85
Source: Hamilton County
• 42 acres: Size of Ruth Cofer Cemetery property
• $950: Cost per burial for a press-board coffin, opening and closing the grave and a metal marker with the deceased's name and birth and death dates
• 3 feet wide, 8 feet long, 6 feet deep: Space each burial requires
• $20,000: Amount budgeted for cemetery upkeep
Source: Hamilton County
Hamilton County officials want to avoid burying another person at Ruth Cofer Cemetery, the grassy hillside off Jenkins Road which has received the remains of the poor and homeless since 1933.
Only 70 plots remain in Cofer Cemetery's 42 acres for those who die without money or relatives to pay for their burials. This year alone, 85 people have been laid to rest there.
"We know this is a sensitive issue and we want to treat these deceased with respect. But the simple fact is that we just do not have the space, and finding more land for this will be very difficult," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. "Its a solution to an unfortunate problem."
That's why Coppinger asked local state legislators Thursday to consider changing the law that mandates the indigent be buried to allow cremation.
The remains could be buried or interred in much smaller spaces, he said, and it would help the county cope with an influx of indigent burials - a number that only continues to rise.
Each year since 2009, the number of Cofer burials has risen by ten. They are paid for with taxpayer dollars, with other costs provided by a rotation of local funeral homes.
The county delegation's chairman, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he is open to bringing the issue before the Tennessee General Assembly after more research and discussion.
"It sounds like a reasonable request, with these space limitations. Cremation has become a much more culturally accepted burial process than it was 20, 25 years ago," Watson said. "I want to see more public discussion, see if it's a local or statewide issue. Certainly if we present an amendment, we'll see that discussion."
While cremation may seem like a simpler option than burial, it raises complicated questions - where the cremated remains would be kept, or how descendants and loved ones could find them later and positively identify them if need be.
Even private funeral homes are held to strict state guidelines about who can be cremated.
"Once you perform cremation, that's a very final act which only leaves behind cremated remains," said Robert Gribble, executive director of the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. "You would not have the body. That is why some people are very sensitive about it, and people look at it with more scrutiny."
Gribble said he has heard of several counties with the same space dilemma as Hamilton County.
Brother Ron Fender, who works with the homeless at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, said he has favored indigent cremation for years. He has been to Cofer dozens of times to bury and visit friends who died - and often were buried - alone.
In many ways, Fender argued, cremation is more dignified than burial - if a family member later shows up looking for a father, mother or sibling, the remains can be passed along.
"Being able to provide that reconciliation is very powerful for many people," he said. And for those never claimed, he would like to create a memory garden or some space to honor the remains.
Regardless, he says, a solution needs to be found soon.
"What will we do a year from now if nothing is done?" he asked. "I am just happy and relieved to know that at least there is a conversation about this."