While many households, businesses and governments are engaging in widespread austerity, one expense is on the rise: burials.
During the Oct. 20 Liberty County Board of Commissioners meeting, Coroner Reggie Pierce spoke about the rising cost of burials and how it affects the county budget.
"What we’ve come in contact with is a lot of nursing home patients have been brought from Atlanta and all over the state to Midway. When they start receiving Medicaid and Medicare funds here, they become residents of the county," he said.
Nursing homes cannot force the patients to set up burial funds and are not allowed to tap patients’ funds to do so, which means that if an indigent patient passes away and no next of kin claims the individual, burial costs fall onto the county, Pierce said. Most indigent cases come from Woodlands Healthcare in Midway, which has more lenient admission policies than other area facilities.
Currently, the county budgets $4,000 each year to cover the indigent cases and pays $1,000 per burial. But the cost of cemetery plots has skyrocketed from $200 to $800, which does not leave enough money to cover other expenses and forces funeral homes to shoulder the difference, Pierce said.
"I don’t believe in taking a person and putting them in a body bag and just throwing them in a hole," he said. Currently, the coroner’s office is dealing with the disposition of two deceased individuals with no known next of kin.
The coroner’s office works diligently to find family and friends of the deceased by retracing their known steps, Pierce said. They run announcements in newspapers and network with funeral homes, other coroners and even sheriff’s offices to track down anyone who has ties to the deceased.
"We also run in to a lot of families who are not claiming the bodies because of the economy," he said. "I’ve got one family that told me pretty much, ‘I don’t care what you do with him. We were estranged of each other, and we’re not going to pay any money.’"
One time, Pierce tracked down a deceased man’s elderly father in Haines City, Fla.
"It took me about a month and a half," Pierce said. "He said, ‘I’ve been looking for my son.’ Sometimes they just get caught up in transit. He and his dad got into a big argument and his dad never knew where he went."
In some rare instances, family will turn up after disposition to claim the body. Because the county has paid to dispose of the body, relatives must reimburse the county before the remains are released.
Pierce proposed cremation, which is a more economical route than burial, as a solution to the problem.
"I can negotiate with the crematorium to where you can do more cases within that $4,000," he said. He proposes placing the remains in proper containers inside of vaults. Then if the family members do come to claim the remains, the ashes are accessible.
Other possible solutions for the county would include donating land to be used for burials, increasing its allotment for indigent cases or authorizing the coroner to use his discretion in determining whether a body should be buried or cremated.
Pierce asked the commission to modify its current policy to allow the coroner to determine the best method of disposition and to pursue cremation with orders from a superior court judge. Judicial orders are not legally required, but they eliminate the county’s liability for the cremations, Pierce said.
Because so many people are opposed to cremations for spiritual and religious reasons, the looming prospect of cremations may spur more families to claim their deceased relatives, he added.
County officials are in the process of examining the language and will vote on the matter in a future meeting.
As for the issue’s impact on business, Pierce’s father, Lee Pierce Sr., owns the Dorchester Funeral Home, which has handled several indigent cases.
A nationwide survey of funeral homes indicates that the average cost of a funeral service is between $7,000 and $7,500, Lee Pierce Sr. said. Prices at his funeral home begin at $3,950.
The cost of a modest burial before labor and overhead are paid is $2,500, he said. After purchasing a cemetery space, county funds contribute $200 toward the other expenses, leaving a shortfall of at least $2,300 on the funeral home.
"We’re just tired — we can’t stand any more of that," Lee Pierce Sr. said. "We’ve been asking that they share this around, but some of the other funeral homes do not care to be bothered with indigent cases."
Edna Mae Miller, owner of Miller Funeral Home in Hinesville, said she cannot afford to take indigent cases.
"Who’s going to pay for it? I have to pay for everything that I get done, and I can’t pay out of my own pocket," she said. "A thousand dollars doesn’t do anything, not for the way the cost of burial is now."
"We’ve all done our share," said Thomas Carter, deputy coroner and owner of Thomas L. Carter Funeral Home in Hinesville. "We’re willing to help anybody that needs help."