Communities have long provided simple burials for the indigent or unidentified, but cash-strapped jurisdictions from North Dakota to Arizona are trimming subsidies, raising fees or switching to cremation. The deliberations over such changes underscore that in an era of austerity, governments have to face issues that touch on both the economic and the moral.
"Do we continue this benefit for those who are deceased, or do we divert [resources] to those who are living?" said Robert Lamkey, director of public safety for Sedgwick County, Kan., which is paying for such burials out of its general fund after the state ended its support.
Toledo, Ohio, is running out of burial funds and space in city-owned Forest Cemetery, Parks Commissioner Dennis Garvin told the City Council this month. So city leaders have proposed adopting cremation as the default option for indigent people, unless their religion bars it. The remains would then be commingled and poured into a double-deep vault. City Councilman Steve Steele asked Mr. Garvin whether the vault was like a "mass grave."
"If we believe that there is a certain sacredness and sanctity of human life that extends after death, then what we do when folks can't afford the increasing cost of a decent interment says a lot," said Steve Steel, a council member who worries about cremation as a default option. A vote on the proposal is set for next week.The change would save Toledo $600 per body and tens of thousands of dollars a year, according to the Parks and Forestry Division. The city buried 38 people last year.
Pauper's burials, as they were once known, are financed differently across the U.S., and national statistics on such services are scarce. Some states and counties provide funds to help defray the cost of burials, while charities are the only source of assistance in other places. New York City does more than 1,000 such burials a year, while smaller cities and counties report a few dozen.
The end to state funding in Kansas left county administrators and funeral homes scrambling to cover the costs. Some counties have put in place new surcharges on cremations to help fund indigent burials; in Harvey County, it's $35 per cremation. In some counties, officials scrutinize a family's finances before offering aid for a burial.
Funeral director W. Ashley Corzine said that at some point, society must bear the cost. "We're talking about human life," said Mr. Corzine, president of Broadway Mortuary in Wichita. "I feel like we do have a moral obligation to take care of people. You can't say we're going to just cut this out of the budget and it is going to take care of itself."
In recent years, Illinois and Virginia also attempted to end their subsidies for burials, only to reverse themselves after outcry from funeral directors and county governments worried the expense would fall on them.
Catholic Social Services helps fill the gap in Charlotte, N.C., where there is no state or county support. "For us it boils down to the dignity and value we place in the value of life," said Sharon Davis, director of the program. "It isn't just the homeless population. We work with families burying children, children burying parents; families that find themselves unable to pay."
Catholic Social Services charges $1,100 for a burial compared with costs that can be as high as $8,000 for a simple funeral. The charity's burial includes a basic casket, a short service and a plot provided free by the county cemetery.
Some counties facing land and budget crunches have already made cremation the preferred option. Chip Ammerman, the social-service director of Cass County, N.D., said his county switched to cremations last year after the number of indigent burials came in at 71, compared with an anticipated 45. Yuma County, Ariz., a small county on the Mexico border, buried about 70 indigent people a year before switching last year to cremation. "We are getting very close to not having any land left," said county official Candy Wheeler-Ruby. "It was a fiscal consideration, but also a room consideration."
Cremation can bring its own concerns. Cremation rates rose to 37% in 2009 from less than 15% in 1985, according to the Cremation Association of North America, a trade group. Both Islam and Judaism prohibit the practice.
In Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, state budget cuts have allowed the medical examiner's office to bury only half the number of bodies that need to be buried each year, according to Albert Samuels, chief investigator for the office. Mr. Samuels said he has about 185 bodies in storage.
Once Mr. Samuels uses up his annual budget of $30,000, he has to stop burials. "Bodies are still coming in," he said. "I get into a hole after a while."
So Mr. Samuels struck a contract with a local crematorium allowing him to cremate an additional 50 bodies last year. The cremations cost $170 each, compared with $750 for a burial.
Meanwhile, he is working to submit the paperwork to the state for five corpses that have been in his morgue since 2008.
"It's not like I can bury these people and then get money from the state. So the body stays here in the freezer while I wait," Mr. Samuels said. "We want to give these people a resting place with some dignity."