Feb 11, 2011

Too poor to die

Ten years ago, Ohio eliminated the program that provided state money for indigent burials in order to save a relatively small amount in the state budget. Today, when so many people are struggling to get by and poverty is rampant, many families have no money to pay for funeral expenses when a loved one dies. Click below to read the story of on Athens County family faced with this tragic situation, and see how the community pulled together to help the family now that the state has turned its back on this responsibility.

Athens County resident Betty Davis died during the last weekend of January. The widow, who was in her late 70s, lived in a mobile home in Coolville with her sons and a grandchild. Her neighbors described her as “family-oriented” and “colorful.” She lived a good life and was rich in terms of friends and family, but poor in terms of money.

When Betty died at the hospital, her family members were very upset and signed some forms they did not completely understand. The forms resulted in Betty’s body being sent to a local funeral home, where it was embalmed as directed by the papers that were signed. The family then received notice that the embalming process cost $1,000 and that the bill had to be paid in two weeks. And if they wanted to purchase a casket, hold calling hours and hold a funeral, it would all cost several thousand dollars more.

Betty had told family members that she did not want to be cremated, but the family learned that if they did not come up with the $1,000 in two weeks, the funeral home was going to cremate the body. Then, Betty’s ashes would be mailed back to the family in a few weeks or months.

“They didn’t have $1,000. They didn’t even have $6,” said Lisa Roberts, director of the Friends and Neighbors Community Choice Food Center in Lottridge. “Grown men were crying.” She and the Center decided to help the family, and other area residents and community groups also offered assistance.

Lisa’s husband, Kenny Roberts, worked with some friends to get some lumber and make a casket for Betty. What normally would have cost thousands of dollars, Kenny and three friends made for $128.

“The four of them worked for 16 hours,” Lisa Roberts said. When the casket was finished, there was no good place to store it until it was needed, so it stayed in Lisa and Kenny Roberts’ living room for a few days.

Lisa helped raise money to pay the funeral home, and then she went and picked up the body to transport it back home. Once back in the Coolville area, a local nurse and a nursing student volunteered to help prepare the body for a funeral.

Kenny Roberts and several other men also spent much of one day digging a grave next to where Betty’s husband is buried in a cemetery on a hillside overlooking the village of Stewart. A caretaker from the cemetery provided some assistance, while other groups also pitched in to help out. A local flower shop helped with the flowers and Betty’s church provided space for the funeral and a luncheon.

Many other people also volunteered or donated to the family, and it was a wonderful example of the community pulling together to help a family in need. At the same time, though, it was also a strong example of how pervasive poverty is in our society and how so many people can’t afford to live or die.

“It’s scary,” Lisa Roberts said. “It could be me tomorrow.” Most churches, food pantries and social service organizations spend all of their money on food and necessities to help keep people alive, and they don’t have the resources to help families when their loved ones die. Many people are struggling just to get by each day, they have no money to pay for the expenses involved with a funeral.

The state of Ohio used to provide funds for indigent burial costs, but that funding was eliminated in 2001 as a part of budget cuts. This budget cut provided a relatively small savings for the state of about $1.5 million, but it had a huge impact on the poor.

Some cities and counties do provide funding today for indigent burials, but many places do not. In most places, the funding only pays for cremating or burying bodies that are not claimed by any family members.

And since the time that Ohio eliminated its funding for indigent burials, Ohio has greatly reduced its income taxes, apparently able to afford the reduction in tax funds but not able to afford to restore funding for indigent burials.

And today Ohio is considering greatly reducing or eliminating the estate tax, which taxes the inheritances left by wealthy Ohio residents when they die (and often have lavish funerals). So while yet another tax on the rich stands to be reduced so that they can hold on to more of their wealth, the poor are left out in the cold, digging graves in the middle of winter for their loved ones and worrying about if they can afford to die.

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