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No state help to bury the poor

A cloth-covered fiberboard casket. However, a cardboard box is also available at most funeral homes for about $50. The State of Michigan is eliminating emergency funding to bury the indigent, except for unclaimed bodies.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A cloth-covered fiberboard casket. However, a cardboard box is also available at most funeral homes for about $50. The State of Michigan is eliminating emergency funding to bury the indigent, except for unclaimed bodies.

UPDATE 11:13 a.m.:

At the request of Michigan Watch, the Michigan Department of Human Services retrieved data regarding the number of unclaimed bodies during the calendar year 2010.  The DHS reports State Emergency Relief (SER) payments were made to help 7,099 indigent burials.  Of that number, 125 were unclaimed bodies.    Since the new budget will limit (SER) funds to unclaimed bodies only, this will mean the amount of funds used for indigent burials will drop from about $4-million to an estimated $4-thousand.

May 23, 2011, 9:33 a.m.:

Governor Snyder and the Republican leadership have a basic agreement about the budget.  Final details will be worked out in conference committee.  There are major cuts to the state budget.  Advocates for the poor are celebrating that they were able to save some programs from being scrapped completely, although many were cut back.  Here's one program which did not survive.

Barely noticed by those of us in the media, the budget will eliminate a program that helps poor families bury their dead.  Michigan has been among about a dozen states which set aside money to help.  The state would help pay for a cheap casket, basically a cloth-covered fiberboard box.  Most cemeteries require some kind of concrete box or vault.  The cheapest, is called a rough box.  State funds paid for it and a basic funeral service and then someone to dig the grave. 

As recently as ten years ago, the average payment to help a family bury a loved one was $1290.  The state reduced the rate over the years.  Since 2007, the maximum the state would pay is $700.  Last year the average payment was $569. 

Now, families will be on their own.

Nationally, the average funeral costs about $7000.  Struggling families cannot afford it.

“They’ve sat down and they’ve told us, ‘We don’t know how we’re going to do this.’

That’s Joe E. Pray.  He’s the manager of Pray Funeral Home in Charlotte, Michigan.

“So, we give them an opportunity. We write it all out. We talk about it. Whether they think about it overnight or we talk about it for an hour or so and they kind of come up with a few people they can ask, once in a while they can come up with some of the money or the majority of the money. In that case, we try to take care of them on a good faith issue. Yes, you’re in dire straits and we want to help you because we feel it’s important that have this experience. Grandpa’s died and you have the opportunity to say ‘Goodbye.’”

During the last 12 months, the state spent nearly $4.1-million dollars helping more than 7,000 families across the state bury their mother, or father, or a child.

Phil Douma is the Executive Director of the Michigan Funeral Home Directors Association.  He says as the state cut payments over the years, the state payment helped less and less.

“Well, over the last 15 years, the state has effectively almost cut in half the maximum payment that they can make to a family member of a deceased indigent. What’s that’s effectively done is shifted the burden to the family members to provide for a proper, respectful final disposition for their loved one.”

Now, at the same time, the Funeral Directors group was dealing with another problem:  unclaimed bodies.   You might recall, Wayne County kept 185 unclaimed bodies in freezers, apparently unaware that the state had money to dispose of the remains.  Phil Douma says the Funeral Directors group suggested the state should use the funds in the burial program for those unclaimed bodies only.

“Clearly we would prefer to see a program that covers the services sufficiently, but the last 15 years have demonstrated those resources just aren’t available. So, given the limited resources, our view is that they ought to be devoted to this unclaimed remains problem.”

And that’s what the new state budget does.  State dollars will only be used to bury or cremate unclaimed bodies.  In other states where that’s happened, the number of unclaimed bodies increased because families could not afford the cost of burying their loved ones.  They simply walked away.  No funeral.  No goodbye.

Joe E. Pray says families need the symbolism of a funeral ritual.  They need that final goodbye.  But, it puts funeral homes in a difficult position.

“You’ve donated a thousand dollars worth of service and you haven’t got an income to offset that. You’ve had to depend upon income from somebody else which isn’t fair to the other people because that thousand dollars, when we refigure our budget next year, you say, well, we’re going to take care of three or four indigent funerals, we’re probably going to end up with a thousand dollars in expense that we’re not going to recover, so, we have to add that to Mr. Smith’s funeral and Mr. Jones funeral and Mrs. A, B, or C funeral.”

But like many of the cuts in the Michigan state budget, while the government will no longer pay for some of these services, the society at large will pay.  Like death itself, there’s no escaping it.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.