Indigent burials rising in number, expense
Counties struggle with cost of dignity
CAPITAL REGION The dignified burials of Montgomery County veterans have cost local government more than usual this year.
“When a veteran passes away,” said Montgomery County Veterans Service Officer Dwight Thompson, “it’s important for that person to be buried in a manner that befits the dignity of their service.”
For that reason, when a veteran passes away and the family can’t afford a burial, the county veterans service agency steps in. This year, Thompson said, it’s been happening more.
According to Schenectady County Veterans Service Agency Director Bill Frank, it’s a trend that crosses into that county, as well. “There are similar numbers in the area.”
Thompson and Frank said they couldn’t be sure if more veterans are passing away or if there are just more passing away in poverty.
“But World War II and Korean War vets are really getting up there in age,” Thompson pointed out.
Montgomery County budgets about $4,000 each year to cover such cases. That generally pays for the burials of an average of three veterans who pass away without savings or financially equipped families.
This year, five cases have already come across Thompson’s desk, another is pending and the year isn’t over yet. His office has already had to ask the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors for an extra $5,000 to cover the increase in indigent veteran burials.
In Schenectady County, Frank budgets for roughly 12 such burials each year, based on a three-year average. Since January, he’s handled 15 and expects a few more before the year is out.
Under state law, veteran’s services must handle the indigent burials of service members to preserve their dignity, but regular citizens in similar circumstances are also entitled to an indigent burial through county social services. Only a very simple funeral is covered, but even so, death is expensive.
“There is a basic allowance of $1,800,” said Montgomery County Social Services Commissioner Mike McMahon.
Depending on the family’s situation, the county might also cover a simple casket and grave-digging and closing fees, all paid to an independent funeral home. All together, laying one individual to rest can cost the county as much as $3,000. The state covers a varying percentage of the first $900, which is reimbursed to the county.
Last year, Montgomery County handled 52 cases, at an expense of nearly $100,000. Fulton County spent more than $137,000 on 66 indigent burials.
“Money is always tight,” said John Rogers of the Fulton County Department of Social Services, who handles burial transactions.
He said the cost and number of cases held relatively steady over the past half-dozen years, but with local governments strapped for funding, the yearly expense is starting to seem high and will probably increase over time as the population ages.
With Fulton and Montgomery counties holding the two highest county unemployment rates in the state, many of those who die do so with no savings.
“It used to be, families would come up with the money for a funeral from somewhere,” McMahon said, “but with the way the economy has been, people just don’t have a few hundred dollars lying around to help bury uncle Joe.”
According to New York State Funeral Director’s Association Deputy Director Randy McCullough, county governments across the state are starting to look into ways of lowering indigent burial costs.
While a traditional funeral can cost thousands, he pointed out direct cremation with no ceremony can be carried out for less than $1,000. For generations, a religious stigma was attached to cremation, but that has begun to lift.
In Fulton County, twice as many families of impoverished dead chose direct cremation in 2011 than five years before, and Rogers has noticed some savings.
“Whenever the family doesn’t have a preference,” he said, “we recommend cremation.”
Rogers hopes that as cremation becomes more culturally acceptable, the burden of indigent burial costs could actually ease on counties.
“I think despite the financial pressure,” McCullough said, “people recognize that everyone deserves to be buried with dignity.”