City of Toledo mulls cremating dead indigents


Dennis Garvin, the city's commissioner of parks and forestry, said the change would save money.

"It's not a new idea and it is something that had been bandied about and first proposed by the cemetery commission 12 years ago," Mr. Garvin said. "What happened since then is the cemetery is pretty well filled up."

The city has for years buried indigent people in Forest Cemetery. Now, there are only 700 plots left there, he said.

"Much of that is due to some creative land management and putting plots where there were not plots before," Mr. Garvin said.

Toledo buried 36 indigent people in 2010 and 53 in 2009. Those people were interred in cardboard containers rather than caskets, city officials said. The cost was $1,325 per burial, which includes $400 for the funeral home, $300 for personnel, and $625 for the grave space.

By comparison, cremation, which would be facilitated by a funeral home, would cost $700 for each person, plus an estimated $25 personnel cost for the city.

Government agencies across the country have been debating cremation versus burial of indigent people in the last few years as government budgets tightened and the families of the deceased have struggled to cover the costs.

Ohio used to be one of about a dozen U.S. states that subsidized the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, but that practice ended in 2001, shifting the financial responsibility to local governments.

"Budgets are tight in municipalities, and they are looking for ways to take care of citizens and do it as economically as possible and still be respectful," said Keith Walker of Walker Funeral Homes and a former president of the state and northwest Ohio funeral directors' associations. He said the $400 paid to funeral homes falls far short of the business' actual costs.

With the U.S. economy still faltering, the number of indigent burials and cremations nationwide has been on the rise.

In Hillsborough County, Florida, the medical examiner's office cremated 700 unclaimed persons in 2009, an increase of 25 percent over 2008. The state of Oregon registered a 50 percent rise in the number of unclaimed bodies in the last several years, and Wisconsin reported a 15 percent increase in 2009, according to The New York Times.

North Dakota's Cass County approved a law in September allowing cremation of indigent dead as a cost-saving measure.

Toledo officials acknowledged that cremation is prohibited by some religious groups and promised to bury anyone whose faith dictates a burial is necessary.

Rabbi Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus of the Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania, said traditional cremation used to be "absolutely forbidden" for Jewish people.

"Traditional Jews, up until a couple generations ago, believed that when the messiah would come the bodies would get up and go back to Jerusalem," he said. "In the right wing, the orthodox element in Judaism, they still say absolutely no to cremation, but on the left, among the modern Jews, you are going to find that it is permissible but not encouraged."

He said the Toledo-area Jewish community buries its own indigent people with a fund set up for that purpose.

Ovamir Anjum, chairman of Islamic Studies at University of Toledo, said cremation violates Islamic law.

"Across the board, cremation is not permissible," Mr. Anjum said. "Burial is a sacred ritual process, there is a prayer involved, there is a whole process, and there is no casket in contrast with the Christian tradition."

Concern that a deceased person's religious beliefs might be violated led the City Council in Hamilton, Ohio, to vote down a recommendation allowing cremation of indigent people in 2009, according to the Dayton Daily News.

One councilman who voted against the proposal said it would be impossible to "prove" the religious beliefs of someone who is dead.

Mr. Garvin said that in Toledo, the cremated remains would be stored at the funeral home until a family member claims them.

If that doesn't happen, the city would take the remains and pour them into an "underground vault," the cost and location of which could not be specified.

"There would be a central pour area and there would be a moisture-proof seal," Mr. Garvin said.

City Law Director Adam Loukx said Toledo is permitted under Ohio law to cremate the bodies of deceased indigent people. He said Cincinnati uses cremation for its indigent residents.

Mr. Walker said state law does not regulate whether a person should be embalmed before cremation and that the decision is left up to the families and the funeral director. The decision usually hinges on whether there is a public viewing of the body, he said.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:, or 419-724-6171.