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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Economy fuels spike in taxpayer-paid burials

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Monday, June 04, 2012 10:35 am
MUNCIE — On Christmas Day 2011, Richard Keafer died without life insurance or money set aside for his burial. His fiancÚ, Joann Whitcomb, didn't know where to turn.Then someone told her about the taxpayer-funded burials provided by the Center Township trustee's office.

"It was really hard for me to go ask for help," Whitcomb said. "I normally don't do that. But his insurance was not going to take effect." She said she was "still in shock" when she went to the trustee's office and "cried for at least a half hour. They were so understanding."

Whitcomb is one of a growing number of local family members and significant others who have had to count on taxpayer-funded burials for their loved ones.

The Center Township trustee's office has seen the number of burials of the indigent steadily increase from 15 in 2005 to 38 in 2011. The office has paid for 14 burials in the first five months of 2012.

It's not certain what has driven the increase in indigent burials, but several factors — most of them economic — get the blame.

Muncie has been hit by job losses — thousands of jobs in the past decade, many of them good-paying manufacturing jobs — and population decreases. Center Township Trustee Marilyn Kay Walker theorizes that for the people who have lost income but remained in Muncie, the options for paying for their own burial have become limited.

"I think first of all you can blame it on the economy," Walker said. "People don't have the money to have insurance. If they did have insurance and it was a policy they could cash in, they cashed it in to survive."

Although indigent burials can be carried out at most local cemeteries — Walker said only one declines township burials, in part because of the type of markers provided by the township — Section 32 at city-owned Beech Grove Cemetery is where most local indigents are buried. Dates on some of the markers in Section 32 show the wide range in age — from infants to the elderly — of those receiving township burials.

Although not all the graves in Section 32 are for people buried at taxpayer expense, some of the graves that are for the indigent are recognizable for their lack of formal headstones or markers. The township now provides money for markers, but some of the graves in Section 32, including older ones, are unmarked or marked only by makeshift memorials like wooden crosses, cherubs or statues of Jesus that look as if they came from stores selling statuary for gardens. Before the township began providing markers, some families would save for years to buy a headstone for their loved one.

The trustee's office began furnishing markers in recent years. It is an additional expense that has brought the amount of burial assistance provided by the township to $2,018. Of that total, about half is for preparation of remains, the casket and funeral, which includes an hour of visitation before the service. Cremation costs are covered if desired. The township pays itemized invoices provided by local mortuaries. Funeral expenses can't be paid for after the fact.

With the increase in indigent burials has come an increase in expense to taxpayers. The cost to the township for burials for the poor has risen from $28,107 in 2007 for $59,664 in 2011.

The increase in indigent burials that Center Township is seeing might be specific to Muncie and doesn't seem to indicate a statewide trend, said Debbie Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association.

"I've not had any other townships report that to us," Driskell said about the increase. "It's probably in line with economic factors."

Gov. Mitch Daniels and other critics of township government in Indiana, citing wasteful spending, have called for the elimination of the entire level of government. Township officials and supporters argue that townships are better able to take care of "grassroots-level" details — like burials — than other units of government.

Walker said that the burial assistance process can be an emotional one for both the family and township employees.

"It's very hard when you've got four or five family members at your desk, they're crying, they don't know who's going to pay for the funeral and they're thankful we're here. It's important we're here to do that."

Trustee's office employees investigate the financial circumstances of everyone applying for burial assistance. If they are eligible for Medicaid burial assistance, the trustee's office won't pay. Sometimes the trustee's office is reimbursed if insurance or other assets are discovered later. In one case, Walker noted, a woman seeking assistance for her brother's burial was asked to sell her brother's old camper — one he had been living in — and turn the money over to the trustee. She did.

In that particular instance, Walker said the woman didn't have a dress shirt for her brother to be buried in. Walker went home and got one of her son's shirts for the man's funeral.

Providing burial assistance isn't cut-and-dried like the rent or utility assistance the office normally provides, Walker said.

"I preach this to my employees: Not everything is black and white," she said. "There's a story to everything. We're not like food stamps, Social Security, this is it, boom, boom, boom.

"This is going to sound really corny, but I am very honored to do the things that I do at my office. You have people coming in that are on their last bit of hope. You can make a difference in their lives."

Whitcomb, who is on disability, retired from Delaware County government after nearly 25 years.

She said that burying her fiancÚ and still meeting daily living expenses "would have been a struggle" without the taxpayer-subsidized burial.

"If it hadn't been for them, I don't know what I would have done."

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