BLOUNTVILLE - Die without money in Sullivan County, Tenn., and, as far as county government is concerned, your next of kin will be given two choices: donate your body for scientific research and subsequent cremation or find money someplace besides county coffers.
On Monday, County Mayor Steve Godsey told county commissioners that from now on, if they are contacted by a family, funeral home, hospital or nursing home requesting assistance taking care of the dead, to provide the caller with the phone number for Restore Life USA.
That's a Johnson City-based nonprofit agency "that provides human tissues for medical research and education purposes," according to its website, which also states: "We specialize in providing spines and many types of orthopedic tissue specimens to researchers."
James Byrd, president of Restore Life USA, said consent must be obtained from the deceased's next of kin within 24 to 48 hours in order for the agency to obtain body parts for use by universities and research facilities across the nation.
Restore Life USA "recovers" desired parts from the body, ships the parts to the recipient organization, and cremates the rest of the remains - which are then returned to the family within two or three days, Byrd said.
Godsey and Byrd said Restore Life USA already has taken some bodies.
According to Restore Life USA's website, its program accepting whole bodies just began Nov. 1.
The Sullivan County Commission did not vote on anything connected to the program. Godsey and County Attorney Dan Street said no formal action was necessary.
Godsey said the county is not contracting with Restore Life USA. Street said state law does not require the county to do anything regarding unclaimed bodies or pauper burials.
"We just need to get out of the way," Street said. "And let them do what private enterprise does best. They're not working for us."
"All you need to do is give them the (Restore Life USA telephone) number," Godsey told commissioners.
Godsey and Byrd each said there are situations when Restore Life USA can't take a body - specifically in cases of infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C or HIV, but also in some instances due to obesity or advanced age.
Commissioner Linda Brittenham spoke out and said there would likely continue to be times when the county would be asked to fund a pauper burial.
"No, ma'am," Godsey said, adding that if anyone contacted Brittenham or other commissioners "you can say ... the County Commission is out of money" and if the deceased's family doesn't like the Restore Life USA option, "they'll have to find the money" to otherwise take care of their dead relative.
Sullivan County has for years provided some sort of pauper burial for the indigent. It used to include burial in the county cemetery. But with the cemetery now full, in recent years most "burials" provided by the county were actually cremations.
Sullivan County's agreement with area funeral homes was for $750 per body. County officials have said actual costs typically ran about $2,000 per case, with the funeral homes covering the loss.
The number of requests for county assistance has increased dramatically in the past three years, from 12 cases three years ago to 27 cases two years ago - and nearly 50 cases paid in the budget year that ended June 30.
As the county's budget development process played out earlier this year, funding for the county's pauper burial program was targeted by some commissioners as an unnecessary expense to taxpayers. But others said taking care of the dead, when no one else comes forward to do so, is a function that has fallen to the county and would likely continue to do so.
The commission eventually approved a $164 million county budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. It cut taxpayer funding for pauper burials from $44,200 to $10,000, trimming $34,200 from the county's $47 million general fund.
Godsey predicted the drop to $10,000 would be short-lived.
Godsey said if the county refused to pay for disposition of dead bodies deemed "paupers" after the $10,000 was spent, morgues of local hospitals would quickly be inundated, and when bodies were stacked two or three deep the hospitals would contact the state - which he predicted would in turn contact the county and demand some sort of action at the local level.
On Monday, as he and Byrd were telling the commission about Restore Life USA, Godsey said the $10,000 budgeted for pauper burials has already been nearly depleted.