Pauper burials on the rise in parts of Georgia

When relatives can’t be located or can’t pay, county governments bear the cost
One of three coffins is removed from a hearse and taken to an area where a short service is held at Lakeside Memorial Gardens in Palmetto on Monday. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

One of three coffins is removed from a hearse and taken to an area where a short service is held at Lakeside Memorial Gardens in Palmetto on Monday. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A Baker County household doesn’t have the money to bury three family members who died of COVID-19 within days of one another.

In Henry County, the coroner is called after two dead bodies are abandoned at the hospital.

Two Lowndes County sisters refuse to pay to bury their father, saying he molested them as children.

The number of unclaimed bodies at morgues and some Georgia coroner offices are on the rise because relatives can’t be located, can’t afford to bury their deceased, or don’t want to bear the responsibility, coroners and county elected officials told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Local elected officials blame the pandemic for the drain on resources, especially for families who have lost multiple loved ones. Many people struggled to make ends meet because of job loss, ongoing illness or some other cause. Many dipped into their life savings before suffering the loss of a loved one, some coroners said.

“Families are already struggling,’' said Mark Savage, Banks County coroner and president of the Georgia Coroners Association.

The Rev. Clifton Dawkins, chaplain for Fulton County, said he has overseen a total of 456 burials for indigents and anonymous persons over the last year. That’s a jump of 100 to150 more than prior years, he said.

COVID-19 has made it more difficult for families to cover funeral expenses, Dawkins said. “There’s no question.”

Sher Lemons measures out the dimensions for new pauper burial sites at Lakeside Memorial Gardens. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Even when a death was not related to COVID-19, survivors were impacted, said Austin Fiveash, Lowndes County coroner. A new federal relief program that reimburses individuals up to $9,000 for COVID-related funeral expenses doesn’t provide help in those cases.

“If grandma dies of a heart attack, but the kids haven’t been able to work because of COVID-19 or because a restaurant closed, the family now doesn’t have the financial means,” Fiveash said. “Their personal economy has tanked, and they don’t have the money to bury grandma.”

Another contributor to the increase in indigent burials and cremation is the rising gun violence that has prompted record homicides in metropolitan areas, some officials say.

In the past, it was rare for coroners to encounter a family who didn’t promptly act to arrange a funeral, but some say that’s not the case now.

“Nothing really shocks me anymore,” said Fiveash. “I would say intrigued is a better word with the amount of people who say, ‘Do whatever you want with them. We don’t have the money. Whatever is fine.’

“It blows my mind.’'

‘A decent and proper burial’

When there’s no one to pay for a person’s burial, taxpayers have to pick up the tab. And some coroners are struggling to find the money.

In Macon-Bibb County, unclaimed bodies have piled up at the morgue because the coroner has run out of money to dispose of them.

The state administers a program to help pay for pauper funerals, but the qualification process can be slow and counties are responsible for paying for interment or cremation. And coroners have been left out of the federal funeral reimbursement program, so it doesn’t solve the problem of crowded morgues and the burden on taxpayers, officials say.

“There’s nothing to guarantee that we’re going to be reimbursed,’' said Alvin Loftin, who owns a funeral home in Baker County, where he also serves as coroner.

The situation has grown so dire in Macon-Bibb that the Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services has had to intervene to speed up the approval of applications under the Indigent Burial Program.

The department runs checks on unclaimed persons to verify that they are indigent before counties release money they’ve set aside to dispose of the deceased.

Each county then decides the amount it will pay from its indigent burial budget. But as years passed, coroners said they’ve had to more frequently lean on the county for more help.

Last month, Macon-Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones pleaded with elected county officials to allow him to hire additional staff to handle the exhausting workloads. He ran out of money in March to support indigent burials.

The second coffin of the three is moved to the burial site after a short service at Lakeside Memorial Garden. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

The backlog meant that the county was spending up to $3,000 to store each body, said Virgil Watkins Jr., a Macon-Bibb commissioner.

Jones was promised another $100,000 to make up for the shortages, but the amount is unlikely to cover his expenses for the remainder of the year, Watkins said.

Some Georgia counties do not take part in the state-administered program. Among them is Baker County in southwest Georgia, where about a quarter of its 3,000 residents live in poverty, and the majority are African-American.

Baker County is part of metropolitan Albany, which was an early national hot spot for the virus.

Prior to the pandemic, Loftin, who is the coroner, used to handle about five or six funerals a month. In April 2020, he arranged 25 funerals in just over a week. Among them was a son who died April 19, followed the next day by his mother, and on April 27, the mother’s sister, he said.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “We were so afraid that something like this could wipe out our whole area. We didn’t have any vaccine. No one knew what was going on.”

Most families wanted “a decent and proper burial,” he said. The problem was that many couldn’t even afford the basic minimum, he said.

They signed promissory notes with assurances to pay the money back over time. But recovery has been slow for many who lost jobs or the family breadwinner to the virus, he said.

Loftin is still waiting for some families to meet their obligations.

Dwindling resources

Meanwhile, resentment is building as coroner offices have increasingly had to pay for burial of persons from other areas.

Lowndes County taxpayers recently paid for the disposition of a Ben Hill County man who died at South Georgia Medical Center.

It also picked up the tab for the cremation of a Tennessee man whose wife said she couldn’t afford to pay to transport her husband back home after he died in Valdosta while the couple was on vacation.

“It doesn’t matter where they came from,” Fiveash said. “All that matters is they passed away here, and there is nobody to claim them.

“Unfortunately, you just can’t sit around. It’s got to be dealt with within a couple days’ time because it is a sensitive situation.”

Fiveash estimated that his cases have climbed since November to one or two indigent burials a week, while prior to the pandemic it was less than a handful a year.

“It doesn't matter where they came from. All that matters is they passed away here, and there is nobody to claim them."

- Austin Fiveash, Lowndes County coroner

While the COVID-19 funeral reimbursement program doesn’t repay counties that had to bear interment expenses, Watkins, the Macon-Bibb commissioner, said he doesn’t see why counties can’t tap federal relief funds to cover the increase in indigent burials.

The latest coronavirus relief fund, through the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden in March, provides payments to state and local governments to help with the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

It only makes sense, Watkins said, to use some of that money because the problem was spurred by the pandemic, whether the person died of COVID-19 or some other cause during crisis.

He also said that getting coverage for indigent burials is unnecessarily complicated, and government needs to provide respectful arrangements for those who don’t have anyone to pay for their funeral.

“To me,” he said, “the simplest solution is to treat people how you would want your family to be treated.”

Conflicting data

It’s often hard to quantify how many unclaimed bodies end up in morgues and coroner offices across the state, or how many families are in need of burial assistance when a loved one dies.

Counties are legally obligated to pay for indigent burials, however many depend on the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services to certify if a person is eligible for a funeral at county expense. That determination is often based on whether the deceased received a government benefit, such as food stamps or Medicaid. Counties also may set other criteria, such as only providing help to those who don’t have life insurance, don’t own property and don’t have bank accounts.

When the deceased does not qualify, a local funeral home may sometimes absorb costs.

There’s a lot of conflicting information regarding the prevalence of pauper burials.

Funeral directors, pastors and others told the AJC that they’ve seen a sharp rise since the pandemic. In Fulton County, the Rev. Clifton Dawkins reported 456 indigent burials over the last year, up from an annual average of roughly 330 in recent years.

However, data from the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services on requests for indigent burials suggested the Fulton County total was flat.

From April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020, the agency reported 335 requests for burials, compared with 336 from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021.

In DeKalb County, the state showed a slight increase to 195 from 177 over the same periods of time.