Last Updated June 6, 2019 at 11:54 a.m. ET
Jimmy Pollard knew his state had a serious problem surrounding death. As the coroner for Henry County and a consultant for the Kentucky Coroners Association, Pollard had seen lots of instances in which family members couldn’t afford to bury or cremate a loved one. But the problem of “funeral poverty” was getting worse.
Pollard realized just how bad things had gotten when, a few years ago, the county judge approached him and said, “I’m out of money for indigent burials this year, and I’ve got six months left to go.”
Despite pleas from the judge and from Pollard, neither the state nor the county has invested more money for burials. “I tried to talk to the state judges’ association,” says Pollard, “but I could tell it didn’t really soak in. More money would help, but right now is a bad time to ask for more money in Kentucky for anything, because it’s just not there.”
What’s happening in Henry County is playing out in places across the country. Rising funeral costs and a lagging economy have made it increasingly hard for many low-income Americans to pay the necessary expenses to dispose of a body. The average cost of a funeral today is $7,400, a price tag that’s risen nearly twice as fast as inflation since the 1980s. (That cost doesn’t include flowers, obituaries and gravesite fees that can tack on another couple thousand dollars.) At a time when 40 percent of Americans can’t even afford an unexpected expense of just $400, according to the Federal Reserve, the notion of a proper funeral and burial has become, for many people, an unattainable luxury.
When family members can’t afford to claim a body, the burden falls on local governments to handle the remains. There’s no comprehensive data on the number of unclaimed bodies in morgues across the country, but everyone agrees it’s a problem that’s getting worse. The St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office had to add mobile refrigerated trailers in 2017 to hold all its bodies. The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner briefly lost accreditation in 2017 because it ran out of storage space. In Mobile County, Ala., annual spending on indigent burials has increased 300 percent over the last decade. In Kentucky, Pollard estimates that indigent burials have jumped 50 percent in just the past 18 months.
Funeral poverty puts medical examiners and coroners in an awkward gray area. “The coroner or medical examiner is somewhat stuck,” says Jonathan Arden, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, who spent the bulk of his career dealing with the dead in New York City and Washington, D.C. “You have no authority to make [the family] pay for it, but you also don’t want the taxpayers to bear the brunt of public burials either.”
In addition to rising funeral costs, the skyrocketing number of opioid overdoses may be contributing to the number of bodies going unclaimed. In West Virginia, one of the states hit hardest by overdoses, The Washington Post reported that state funeral assistance funds ran out in March 2015 and again in 2017. In 2018, the state reduced reimbursements for funeral homes and tightened the rules for families requesting aid. It still ran out of money by the end of the year.
Gun deaths may also be a factor. The number of firearm-inflicted homicides and suicides hit a 50-year high in 2017. Victims of drugs and guns are often young. Young people typically lack life insurance, which can pay for funerals.
Many local and state governments provide financial assistance to help defray funeral costs. But the subsidies often cover just a sliver of the expenses. New York City, for example, offers up to $900 in funeral assistance -- as long as the funeral doesn’t cost more than $1,700. Because the cost of cremations (but not caskets) is exempt from the cap, those types of funerals are more likely to be covered. But cremation is prohibited by some religious faiths, including Islam and many traditional Jewish sects. “Most [applicants] wind up being denied because of documentation -- families or friends tend to have trouble getting the right level of documentation together,” says Chief Program Officer Lisa Fitzpatrick. “And the second-highest reason is that funerals usually exceed the $1,700 cap.” Even if funeral costs are kept below that cap, total expenses can rise much higher. The mere cost of a cemetery niche to store an urn ranges from $1,900 to $6,500 in the city, according to a recent New York Times report. A $900 check from the city won’t go very far toward covering that.
In terms of funding assistance, New York’s program is fairly average. Some places, like Connecticut and Wisconsin, offer up to $1,500. Some counties in Arizona limit subsidies to $485 and require families of the deceased to prove they’re financially in need. Washington, D.C.’s funeral aid maxes out at $800 for a burial and caps the family’s total expenses at $2,000.
The federal government doesn’t provide much additional help. If the deceased was on Social Security, surviving spouses or children receive a one-time $255 “death benefit.” More substantial state and federal assistance is available for veterans and for victims of crimes.
Generally speaking, none of these assistance programs has kept pace with the rise in funeral costs over the past few decades. New York City’s burial reimbursement, for instance, has been the same amount since 1987. As the gap between costs and subsidies has grown wider, some places have responded by scaling back the assistance they offer. In Sullivan County, Tenn., officials cut their indigent funeral budget by one third and declared they would either donate bodies to science or offer only cremation.
In Kentucky, Pollard says some counties have started limiting burial assistance and indigent burials to people who were documented residents at the time of their death. Other counties have contracted directly with funeral homes to keep costs low -- usually through cremation. But the problem of funeral poverty, he says, “is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Read more on this topic: "Human Composting, Liquid Cremation: States Search for Greener Funeral Options"
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story falsely stated that New York City requires people receiving funeral assistance to cremate their loved ones. While cremations are more likely to be covered than casket burials, they are not required.