During my time as a funeral home owner I had to visit with the county Social Services director, with other funeral home owners, to discuss the procedure and re-imbursements for what we termed “county burials” about every other year. The discussion was always the same. . . .the county had a limited amount of money to pay for indigent funerals and they were interested in how we could agree on a re-imbursement plan.
Up until the final couple of years the agreement was that the county would, for a full service funeral, pay a much reduced price for our professional services and then pay for a cloth covered casket and vault at cost, as well as the cost of the digging of the grave. For cremations they paid a flat fee of $1000 and we were required to supervise a memorial service.
Like most funeral directors who have a heart, we were happy to get a few of these calls yearly and pleased to serve the families who were in a much worse situation than we were. I was grateful for my station in life and was happy to serve my community in this way. I also was practical in that I always told the county authorities my property taxes were too high. . .so I felt I should not complain about the fact the county tried to hold down its expenses when it was paying me. I did not want to be a hypocrite and have them say, “He complains when he pays, but says it is not enough when we pay”.
I did, however, feel that the good hearts of funeral directors sometimes were taken advantage of. For instance, in my example above, the casket company, the vault company, and the gravedigger all got full price for their products. . . . no cut in their pay by the county. But again, I rationalized that we were providing a great service to the community and I was grateful to be in the position I was in.
According to this article from Governing, they hypothesize that funerals have now become a luxury that many Americans cannot afford and that because of that cities and counties are paying the price. The article states several ways that the practice of “county funerals” is putting pressure on local governments and wonders how they are going to stem the tide of money out the door of county coffers for this purpose.
According to the article, “40% 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”. And, when families cannot afford to claim the body, the burden falls on local governments to handle the remains.
Some medical examiners quoted in the article explain that they are in awkward situations at times. One of them said, “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.” Opioid deaths, firearm deaths, and suicides are factors that have contributed to the dilemma of so many publicly assisted services.
Some counties have had to become tougher on who qualifies for a county burial. One county is now requiring documentation that you are a legal resident at the time of the death. Another county has cut their indigent budget and declared that public service deaths must either be donated to science or cremated. Other counties are contracting directly with a single funeral home to keep costs low, but one coroner warns, “the problem of funeral poverty is going to get worse before it gets better”.
Funeral Director Daily take: In my opinion this is a big and rising issue in the death care field. On one hand we understand that counties cannot pay for more and more services without raising taxes. On the other hand, funeral homes have to be paid for their services or their business model turns upside down. They cannot continually be squeezed to do these services for less and less. . . it just is not feasible as the cost of labor and regulation continue to rise.
Finally, we have not even brought up the fact that as of 2016, according to the Migration Policy Institute, the United States harbored 11.3 million people with non-legal resident status. 11.3 million out of a United States population of 329.0 million is about 3.4%. Only about 13.2% of this population is over 55 years old but, what will funeral homes, and government, be asked to do as this population ages and dies?
That is a big question for governments to ponder. Not only will they be asked to be financially responsible for a large portion of their own citizens who cannot pay for death care services, but it is conceivable that they will be financially responsible for a large number of non-citizens as well.
Legislators have a difficult job. I understand the choices and decisions that have to be made are never easy simply from my position on our state’s land grant college board. The choices never seem to be slam dunk decisions and there are never enough resources for everything everyone wants.
However, our cities, counties, and states have to figure out a way to stem the rapidly growing trend of government paid funerals. . . especially when the government cannot pay enough to allow for funeral homes to profit. There are no easy choices but it is not too early to look for solutions.