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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

Grave consequences: State cuts force cities, others to shoulder cost of indigent burial

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER
Paul Waltz, of Waltz Casket Co., readies two of his inexpensive caskets used in indigent burials. Paul Waltz, of Waltz Casket Co., readies two of his inexpensive caskets used in indigent burials.
HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

In life, Jo Ann Jankowski and Howard Ivey had little in common. Ms. Jankowski, 50, had been a veterinarian's technician. Mr. Ivey, 87, a former merchant marine sailor, was a nursing-home resident.

In death, they have more in common.

The body of Ms. Jankowski, who died in December, and the ashes of Mr. Ivey, who died in January, are buried just a few feet apart in a section of North Oregon Cemetery, on Otter Creek Road, that's reserved for indigents.

They died broke. No one offered to pay their funeral or burial costs. And they're not alone.

Thousands of people die every year in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan - about 5,000 in Lucas County alone - and hundreds of them are dead broke. Many have relatives, friends, or fellow church members who pay the final expenses.

Some others are helped by funeral homes willing to cut corners on expenses and even hold the bodies for weeks, or months, until families can scrape the money together. But dozens end up in municipally owned cemeteries, in what once would have been called potter's fields or pauper's graves.

Because of cutbacks or outright elimination of state aid, communities in the region are having to deal with the problem of indigent burials.

"Indigents became much more of a problem a couple of years ago," said Steve Gehlert, executive director of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association in Columbus.

Until mid-2001, Ohio paid up to $750 for an indigent's burial, and families were allowed to contribute an equal amount, but in a budget-tightening move, the state eliminated the payments, pushing the burden off onto counties and municipalities.

"Funeral directors weren't making any money [on indigent funerals] when the state gave $750," said Mr. Gehlert. "They were just hoping to cover some costs." It's an even tighter squeeze now, he added, but they realize their responsibility. "They know the person deserves a dignified burial, and they just do it."

Ron Miller, the sexton of Oregon's cemeteries, said the problem will increase. "I just buried the 13th one," he said. That's 13 in five years.

The city pays $500 to a funeral home, an amount that covers casket, transportation, and other preparatory services, and it furnishes a grave site that normally would cost $500, grave opening and closing that normally would run $500 or so, and a vault or grave liner that wholesales for $250 or more.

Oregon is more generous than Toledo, which contributes $400 to the funeral home, donates a grave plot and opening/closing services valued at a combined $905 at the city-owned Forest Cemetery at Stickney Avenue and Paxton Street.

Forest does not require vaults or liners and none are used for "welfare" burials. Embalming, at a typical cost of $350 to $400, is not required if the body is buried quickly.

In most cases, the indigents are buried in very low-cost caskets, ranging from cloth-covered fiber-board, which is similar to cardboard, to somewhat sturdier cloth-covered particle-board.

Local funeral home directors say they do their share of indigent burials, although some won't deal with them at all. All say they can't begin to cover costs with Toledo's $400 or Oregon's $500 contribution.

Other communities may have to deal with the problem in the future. For example, Ottawa Hills, where indigency is not a normal situation, has a community-owned cemetery but no lots are left, said Marc Thompson, village manager. "If we had an indigent person, I don't know what we would do," he admitted. "We would probably pay to have the body buried somewhere else."

Many families nationwide are dealing with ever-rising funeral costs. The average funeral-home bill is about $5,500, based on a survey of about 1,500 mortuaries, said Ken Rodenburg, vice president of the Federated Funeral Directors Association in Springfield, Ill.

But if cemetery costs are included, such as the vault, funeral plot, and opening and closing the grave, the average cost is over $7,000, he said.

Local funeral directors say economical funerals can be arranged for $2,000 to $4,000.

"I would never turn away a family who could honestly not afford to pay," said Jim Strabler, director of the Strabler Funeral Home in Toledo.

His mortuary will hold off on a funeral for a reasonable period of time to allow families to raise funds, he said. Some banks will make loans for funerals, he added.

Even so, Mr. Strabler said he does "numerous" indigent burials yearly.

Mike Day, director of the Day Funeral Home in Toledo, said he, too, will work with families to cut costs of funerals, but even the most economical is likely to run $3,000 or more, plus cemetery costs, he said.

Decades ago, a number of funeral homes in the area, including his, did funerals on credit. "But we all got burned," he said. "We all have filing cabinets full of IOUs."

The funeral home handles an average of five indigent funerals a year, he said. "It's a losing proposition," he maintained. "You do it for goodwill."

Ohio no longer keeps figures on indigent burials, but at one time, before the cutback, the state paid as much as $1.5 million a year, covering burials for about 2,000 people. The actual number of indigents was probably higher, as the state's rules excluded many.

In Michigan, indigent funerals are paid for by the state, not the local community. The state has reduced its funding in recent years, but still pays up to $947 for a burial and up to $445 for an immediate cremation. Families are allowed to contribute up to $2,600 without jeopardizing the state stipend.

Every year, Michigan averages about 6,000 to 7,000 indigent burials, nearly a third of which occur in Wayne County, where Detroit is, said Maureen Sorbet, spokesman for Michigan's Family Independence Agency in Lansing.

Rupp Funeral Home, outside Monroe, does half a dozen indigent burials a year that are partly paid for by the state, said Doug McMullen, director. Even a minimal funeral costs well over $2,000, he said, and the typical economical funeral runs $3,500 to $3,600.

Caskets can be a small or large part of funeral costs, said Paul Waltz, owner of the three-generation Waltz Casket Co. in downtown Toledo, which supplies mortuaries in a 22-county area.

"There are Cadillacs and Chevrolets," he said. At the upper end, a solid copper one retails for $6,000 and a bronze model for $11,000.

But his firm also sells a couple hundred extremely economical caskets, including a cloth-covered fiberboard version that he wholesales for about $180 and another somewhat better one for $300. "That's all some families can afford," he said.

Dr. James Patrick, Lucas County coroner, said his office handles about 1,000 bodies a year, including 700 or so from Lucas County, and only about a dozen end up with indigent burials. Toledo, though, pays for a 60 to 70 indigent burials annually.

"We don't have a major problem like Detroit and some other cities," he said. "People do tend to come forward to help."

Contact Homer Brickey at: homerbrickey@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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