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Deceased People Experiencing Homelessness

Metairie-Cemetery

The coroner can usually identify the bodies, but most of the time their families don’t collect the remains. So once a year, in autumn, the county… buries them in a single grave at Evergreen…. The cemetery keeps people’s remains for four years, he said, in case anyone wants to claim them, although few do.

Daniel Costello wrote this six years ago, about Los Angeles, where there is a 30-day window during which a body can be claimed before cremation. Then, the ashes are separately kept for a while, just in case. Costello viewed the storage room in which 1,600 small maroon boxes were shelved. In each box, identified with a name tag if applicable, someone’s ashes were stored. Once the four-year wait was over, each pile of ashes would be decanted into a mass grave, the name tag discarded, and the box thriftily reused.

Last year, Los Angeles laid 1,639 people to rest in just this way. Supervisor Don Knabe told a reporter:

These are individuals that, for one reason or another, have no one but the county to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial. Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of their lives mattered.

Some feel that, having ignored homeless people in life, the authorities should at least provide some kind of marker at each mass grave listing the names, rather than just the year. More could and maybe should be done to denote the resting place of so many unclaimed humans.

To pick a random American city, last month Mike Owen reported for the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus, GA, on proposals that would cost the city an estimated additional $10,000 per year over what it already pays for indigent burials. The director of public services, Pat Biegler, put forward two ideas, one of them aimed at squeezing more use from the city’s Porterdale Cemetery.

Only about a thousand more burial plots are available, and with an average of 81 poor and forgotten people laid to rest there every year, at this rate, the cemetery will be full in 12 years. What Biegler suggests is to start employing the practice of cremation, which is the norm in many other places. Because of the religious implications, permission for cremation has to be given by a family member, and looking for them can be a long and complicated process. But part of the problem is, of course, that many people who become “indigent remains” do not have any locatable relatives.

However, even if only a portion of the total could be cremated, the plan would be to bury three sets of ashes in each plot, thus maximizing the use of space. (As we have seen, Los Angeles manages to fit more than a thousand into each plot.) But… Before the remains are buried, the processing of the body must be considered. For a straight burial, the casket costs $225 and the funeral home gets an additional $125 to cover its overhead. Cremation, at $600, costs nearly twice as much, though that may change if the city goes along with Biegler’s request to raise a standard burial payment from $350 to $400.

This story’s reader comments included an expression of incredulity that cremation costs more than burial, and an objection to burying three sets of cremains in a single burial plot, and the suggestion (maybe facetious and maybe not) that it would be more cost-effective to bury bodies vertically. The subject also unleashed ugly contentiousness. No matter what plan the authorities settle on, a goodly number of people will be riled up about it.

King County, WA, encompasses Seattle and about two million residents, and is nowhere near being one of America’s wealthiest counties. As of the 2010 census, median income for a family was $87,010, and about 10% of the residents qualified as below the poverty line. Carol Smith presciently wrote that an “invisible indicator” of a failing economy is the annually increasing number of unclaimed bodies housed in the morgue.

Smith interviewed Joe Frisino, chief investigator for the Medical Examiner’s office, whose job is to locate the relatives if possible and determine their wishes. Frisino often relies on Mary Larson, a nurse at the Pioneer Clinic, to help with identification. She also helps organize the annual group services, which sometimes memorialize as many as 200 unclaimed people. The nurse, an easel painter who often portrays her homeless friends in works of art, is quoted as saying:

We meet wonderful, very, very interesting people.

To qualify for indigent burial in Travis County, TX, a person has to either be unidentified, or possess under $2,000 in assets and no insurance. These days, that includes a lot of people, especially among the homeless. In Austin, Andrea Ball reported earlier this month on the inauguration of a second indigent cemetery:

For decades, Travis County has been arranging and paying for burials of low-income people. Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Services Department pays funeral homes about $850 per burial… The county provides the burial spot and arranges a small service. They also have staffers who work with surviving relatives.

Business and multimedia journalism student Michelle Chu notes that as an alternative to buying the 97-acre parcel of land for the new cemetery, the county considered privatizing indigent burial by contracting with funeral homes. She says:

Privatization would have increased the cost from $850 to about $4,500 per burial.

That would be an astonishingly exponential increase. Even more astonishing is to hear such an admission in a state where privatization is generally considered to be a good thing.

Ball tells us that in Travis County, cremation has not been the policy up until now, not even when requested by the decedent’s family, although that may change. Apparently, in other parts of Texas, a cremation can be had for as little as $200. In 2011, Travis County was responsible for 145 interments, at a total cost of $130,000. If the cremation alternative is adopted, it would have to be authorized by the next of kin, and not even considered in the case of an unidentified person.

In her piece, Ball quoted Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who sees the proposal as meeting changing needs while retaining sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.

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Source: “Homeless in Life, Nameless in Death,” LA Times, 06/25/06
Source: “L.A. County to bury homeless, poor unclaimed by family members,” LA Times, 12/06/11
Source: “City considering cremation of indigent remains to save cemetery space,” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, 07/31/12
Source: “Indigent Remains,” KUOW.org, 12/23/09
Source: “New cemetery for Travis’ indigent, and perhaps a new option: cremation,” Statesman.com, 08/08/12
Source: “A New (Final) Home for Indigent Residents,” Travis County in Transition, 2012
Image by Loco Steve (Steve Wilson).