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Individual burials can be $2,000. The costs have increased dramatically during the pandemic, with some communities turning to federal aid to help cover the expense.
Governments were paying for an increasing number of indigent burials in the years before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has added to that pressure over the last year.
“Addressing this increasing need is a human services priority,” said Teryn Zmuda, the National Association of Counties’ chief economist. “It’s something everyone at the county level is paying attention to.”
In perhaps the most extreme example, the number of indigent burials in New York City nearly tripled in 2020 to 2,334 adults, according to an analysis by the Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism and the nonprofit news site The City. If the unclaimed bodies of more than 700 people who died at the height of the pandemic are added to that total, it could mean as many as one-tenth of the people who have died from the coronavirus in New York City would be buried on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field.
Officials in these places and others attribute the rise to deaths due to Covid-19, or deaths related to the pandemic, such as a serious medical condition that went unchecked.
Indigent burials can cost around $2,000 or more per person when including the cost of cold storage, said Zmuda. Given that coroners, hospitals and medical examiners are most often the caretakers of the unclaimed deceased, counties often bear the brunt of these costs. And if the budget for indigent burials runs dry, the money has to come from elsewhere.
“A county wouldn’t deny processing a body if the funds run out,” said Zmuda. “This is not something that just can’t be done—it has to take place.”
In Ohio, the state in 2019 reinstituted its Indigent Burial and Cremation Support Program to reimburse localities up to $1,000 for the cost of each burial. The state’s battle with the opioid epidemic and rising deaths was a main motivator at the time, but localities now have an even greater need for the fund with Covid-19 deaths.
Heidi Fought, executive director of the Ohio Townships Association, said that many communities across the state have small budgets and even finding $10,000 to cover five or six indigent burials in a year can be a strain.
“If your budget is $150,000 and you have 30 miles of road to maintain, three cemeteries and two parks and other things —that budget is not going to go a long way,” she said. “That $10,000 expense can be devastating to them.”
The state has budgeted $1 million a year for reimbursements to local governments and halfway through the 2021 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, it had paid out $18,561. However, there were 419 applications outstanding as of February 2021, according to the state.
Federal Relief Aid Helping Cover Costs
In a number of cases, governments are using federal coronavirus relief funds to help cover the added costs of storing and interring the unclaimed deceased as well as other costs related to Covid-19 deaths. In Long Island, New York, the town of Hempstead used $433,116 from CARES Act funds to construct new plots in the town cemetery, according to data from the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
In Illinois, PRAC data shows that Lake County allocated more than $170,000 in relief funds to the county coroner to help cover increased expenses due to covid. And Cook County has so far spent about $1 million on storing the overflow of deceased coming into its medical examiner’s office, including nearly $500,000 on leasing a “surge center.”
According to Cook County indigent coordinator Rebeca Perrone, the need for increased morgue space is due to a combination of people who don’t have the money to bury their loved one or who are too afraid to come in. Perrone typically arranged around 30 cremations a month for families who can’t afford a burial but said that number doubled during the pandemic.
Burial Assistance Funds Going Up
A number of places are also using federal money to create a burial assistance program for low-income families or add to their existing one. Maricopa County, Arizona partnered with the Valley of the Sun United Way to provide qualified applicants up to $1,200 for burial or cremation services at a participating funeral home. The county has approved up to $3 million in covid relief funds for the program.
In New York City, the Human Resources Administration increased its burial assistance allowance from $900 to $1,700 and increased the cap on burial costs from $1,700 to $3,400.
And thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act, FEMA will reimburse individuals up to $9,000 for covid-related funeral expenses. While it’s not open to governments, it theoretically could help release some of the pressure from localities paying for indigent burials by providing family members another resource.
But that can be tricky, said Laura Pleiman, director of human services for Boone County, Kentucky. For one, the assistance only applies to covid-related deaths. So, a family facing financial hardship due to the pandemic and therefore unable to afford a funeral for a loved one who died of other causes would not qualify for the assistance.
The federal assistance also doesn’t have an impact when there’s no one to claim an individual who died. And even if someone can be found, the fact that they have to pay for burial upfront and then get reimbursed by FEMA can be a barrier. That happened recently in Boone County with a resident who died of covid-related causes.
“We started the inquiry but he didn’t have any family contacts,” said Pleiman. “We did locate a friend, but he was not in a [financial] position where he could fund a funeral in the first place—even with the promise of a reimbursement.”