Even in death, no rest from recession

Even in death, no rest from recession

September 21st, 2009 by Kevin Hardy in News

Not even death can keep some of us from feeling the effects of a wobbly economy.

As millions of Americans go without jobs, providing a proper funeral for loved ones can be a daunting task for some families. And with state law regulating the burial or cremation of bodies, the job of providing proper burials for the impoverished often falls on local governments and funeral homes. Counties in Tennessee, Georgia and across the nation have seen increased numbers of taxpayer-funded burials since the recession began.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry<br> Grave markers rest on the grounds at Ruth Cofer Cemetery where indigent burials for Hamilton County are preformed. Hamilton County and Whitfield County have seen an increase in pauper burials which sometimes cost the taxpayers $1,000 each.

"Theoretically in Georgia, each county has a small amount set aside for indigent burials," said Alysia McDonald, executive director of the Georgia Funeral Directors Association.

Whitfield County sets aside $65,000 in its annual budget to help provide a steel casket, a simple grave marker and burial plot in a public cemetery for the county's impoverished.

Brian McBrayer, a staff accountant for the county, said by the beginning of September, the county was six burials ahead of what was budgeted for the year.

"It's certainly not something we took into account when we were planning for the budget," said Ron Hale, Whitfield County's finance director.

Each burial costs the county about $1,000, the budget allows the funding of about 65 burials, Mr. Hale said. In 2008, the county paid for 82 burials -- going $17,000 over budget.

"If we go over, then we have to make that up from some other area," Mr. Hale said.

BY THE NUMBERS

Whitfield County indigent burials:

* 2007 -- 60

* 2008 -- 82

* 2009 -- 46 (through Sept. 1)

Hamilton County indigent burials:

* 2007 -- 46

* 2008 -- 53

* 2009 -- 47 (year-to-date)

Sources: Hamilton County Department of Corrections and Whitfield County Finance Department

In Tennessee, Hamilton County has had increased pauper burials since 2007 and is on the way to top last year's 53 taxpayer-funded burials in Ruth Cofer Cemetery on Jenkins Road.

Each indigent burial in Hamilton County costs taxpayers $990, which includes opening and closing of the gravesite, a plain, cloth-covered wooden coffin and a flat metal marker indicating the deceased's dates of birth and death, said Robin Tilley, office supervisor for Hamilton County Corrections, which oversees indigent burials in the county.

Increased numbers of publicly funded burials are being realized in California, Wisconsin and West Virginia, according to news reports. Officials in Nashville say the economy's effects are being seen at Metro Social Service's burial program, which provides burial for the city's impoverished. Last year, the city government paid for 46 burials and 11 cremations, according to Carol Wilson, a program manager for the burial program.

"This year it has doubled that -- just about tripled -- so far," Ms. Wilson said.

Even with support from some counties, local funeral directors say the reimbursed amount rarely covers the costs of the services provided. Russell Friberg, owner of Heritage Funeral Homes in Fort Oglethorpe and Chattanooga, said funeral homes often provide services at very little or no cost to families without the help of local governments.

"Most of the funeral homes agree that it's just part of it," Mr. Friberg said. "Like an attorney or a doctor who would do something gratis, funeral homes do the same thing."

The money that county governments set aside for indigent burials -- if they set any money aside at all -- is usually not enough to cover the funeral home's expenses, even for the simplest burials, Mr. Friberg said.

"If we don't get anything for it, we don't get anything for it," said Donna Rudolph, a funeral director at Ralph Buckner Funeral Home in Cleveland, Tenn. "We do what we have to for the people."

Ms. McDonald said funerals can be a financial and emotional shock to families regardless of their means or background.

"The whole situation is always a shock," Ms. McDonald said. "The good news about funerals and the bad news about funerals is, fortunately, people don't have to deal with them very much."