Dying Poor in Ontario County

by Jeff Marinelli

::: In some counties in America, indigent death is a disposal problem. You’re placed in a body bag and buried wearing whatever you died in. Other counties ensure that their indigents are provided with a simple, dignified funeral. What happens to someone in Ontario County when they die with nothing? Where does a destitute person’s funeral come from here, and what kind of services will they get?

The funeral industry occupies kind of a strange niche in any community. Sometimes people see it as a sort of quasi-public entity; something they can take for granted, like a fire department or a hospital. It’s not, though. A funeral home is a business, and needs to make a profit to survive. With poor people, in death as in life, profit margins are going to be small.

No matter where you live, indigent burial is going to be a balance between what seems to be the socially and morally right thing to do, and a responsibility to the taxpayers to be prudent with their money. In many counties, dead poor people are a negotiated contract. It’s carefully spelled out what will be paid for and what won’t. Funeral homes bid for their county’s dead poor and the right to bury them. The families of dead indigents in some places in America don’t have much say in what happens to their own.

I was prepared for some insensitivity when I began talking to people, but I never heard ‘welfare funeral’ once. Because it amounts to a taxpayer-funded funeral, the emphasis is on keeping the cost down, but prudence doesn’t have to mean undignified. Ontario County is willing to pay for the following: The funeral director’s services and use of the establishment and facilities, such legal things as have to be done to retrieve and transport the body, 2 hours of calling at the funeral home, and a basic casket, usually a cloth-covered pine or particleboard box. Ontario County will pay for an obituary in either the Daily Messenger or the Finger Lakes Times. The county will also pay a 50 dollar honorarium for a clergyperson to officiate.

I spoke to a second-generation funeral director at one of Ontario County’s family-run businesses. “The county lets the family pick the funeral home they want, and we’ll provide the services”, he said. I asked him if he could decline to do a Social Services funeral if he wanted to. He said “Yes, I can. It’s not a profitable thing to do, but if I have a family standing on my doorstep that needs a funeral, I’m not going to turn them away.” He estimates that Department of Social Services funerals account for maybe 5% of his business each year. He noted that one funeral home he knows of in Ontario County refuses to do DSS funerals. He also said that he feels “Ontario County is one of the best counties in the area in the way they handle this”, meaning indigent burial. He also mentioned that DSS provides area funeral homes with a cost of living increase each year towards what they can bill for services. He noted that “virtually every indigent burial I do has some involvement from the family as far as planning the funeral. If a family has the means and they wish, they can upgrade services, just as you or I could”, he added. The prevailing thought in the industry is that if you handle an indigent funeral, somewhere down the road it leads to a non-Social Services funeral. He didn’t name the funeral home that refuses to handle indigents, and I didn’t ask, but he agreed with me that the potential poor public relations that could arise from such a policy could cost far more than a supposed lack of profit by accepting a funeral from DSS.

One funeral director in Canandaigua told me that he makes virtually no money on a county funeral but that “it’s an important part of my responsibility to see that people have a decent burial.” He agreed that when other people visit his funeral home for an indigent funeral and “see how we run things and see our establishment, we’ll get some business later when they find themselves in need.” Ontario County funeral directors have an Association, and he told me that they were going to have to approach the county to raise some of the rates because vaults for instance are being reimbursed at a lower rate that what the funeral home needs to charge. Clearly, it’s not the funeral director’s place to help pay for indigent funerals, though some do absorb the loss. This funeral director assured me that county policy doesn’t allow the family to pay for an upgraded funeral. “As far as the county’s concerned, if the family has money, they don’t qualify for a county funeral.” He told me he’s had families walk out because they wanted to pay for add-ons themselves but that “he didn’t want to risk getting in trouble over it, so he stuck to the county’s rules.” Some counties in America go to great lengths to recover money spent on an indigent’s funeral from family members who are not legally responsible anyway. I’m glad our county doesn’t do that. Another funeral director told me that sometimes there’s no one at an indigent person’s funeral, no family, no friends, no one. He said when that happens “there’s me, there’s the people who work for me, and we’ll have a minister or priest there and we’ll have a service anyway. We’ll act as the family would.” These people are after all, being paid to be there, but in the absence of friends and family, who would ever know? This mark of respect for a dead stranger struck me deeply.

I called the office at Woodlawn Cemetery and spoke to the manager. Ontario County lets the family select the cemetery they want as well. The manager said “All graves here are 500 dollars, regardless of location.” Some cemeteries in America charge different rates depending on what section it’s in (nicer view, close to fountains, etc). Anyone buried in Woodlawn has to have a vault or grave liner, which the county also pays for. There are no state laws that mandate such a thing for burial, but virtually all cemeteries require them to keep graves from sinking or caving in, especially when riding mowers or tractors are used to cut the grass. Ontario County will only pay for one grave, however, so if a spouse wishes to be buried next to their husband or wife, the family will need to find the money to buy a double plot. There’s no credit offered in a case like this; even the funeral home has to front the money to pay for the grave, and then wait to be reimbursed from the county, which generally takes about 30 days. One funeral director candidly admitted that sometimes this presents a problem. “By the time the spouse dies, the grave next to that person’s husband or wife may not be available.” The cemetery manager told me that Woodlawn does about 130 burials a year. He had no way of knowing how many are county funerals, because the funeral home pays for the grave. Woodlawn Cemetery is operated under not-for-profit status.

Father Tom Mull at St. Mary’s Church administers Calvary Cemetery on Clark Street. He told me that graves there are 400 dollars, and they also require a vault or liner. I asked if they accepted indigent burials and he said “Of course we do.” He recalled one family that had no money, and for whatever reason, money wouldn’t be forthcoming from the county, so the grave was donated. “The dictates of our faith require that we should do that,” he said. He also told me that he will make arrangements for a surviving spouse with a limited income to buy a second grave by “paying a little each month” so they can be buried next to their husband or wife. Father Mull said he only gets called out maybe two or three times a year to do an indigent’s funeral here, but “in Rochester I did an awful lot of them.” He said sometimes a funeral director will call him to officiate at someone’s funeral and he’ll go, whether he knew the person was Catholic or not. I asked him about the honorarium and he explained that it didn't go to him. “In our church, all my needs are provided for, so it goes into the general fund.”

One surprising fact turned up regarding cremation. The choice of cremation or burial is left to the family, if not decided beforehand. In New York State, cremation is also regarded as final disposition of the body. That means that legally, nothing more needs to be done. You don’t need to purchase an urn or have the ashes buried if you don’t want to. The cremated remains (called ‘cremains’ in the trade) of an average adult weigh between 4 and 6 pounds and come from the crematory in a plastic lined cardboard box. Ontario County will authorize payment for a grave for an indigent person’s ashes, however, so the family still has a place to go.

One item that doesn’t make the list for county payment is any kind of marker or monument. If a family wishes the grave to be marked, they’ll have to find the means to make it happen on their own. This undoubtedly means that some of Ontario County’s dead poor lie in unmarked graves, but cemetery records will show who’s buried where. Cemeteries are usually pretty strict in not allowing any kind of homemade markers or monuments, out of a sense of decorum for all the families who visit the cemetery. One funeral director told me that as part of his service he provides a temporary aluminum marker with the person’s name on it but “they don’t last long. By the third time they get hit by a lawnmower they’re finished.”

Next on my list of people to talk to was Ralph Calabrese. Ralph is very well known for veteran’s advocacy issues. When I told him what I wanted to write about, he was quite taken aback. “I have never thought about this”, he said. One of the funeral directors I spoke to told me that the Ontario County Veteran's Association is no longer involved in veteran’s funerals. I asked Ralph about some of the vets at the VA. Some of the long-time patients there don’t own anything more than such small personal possessions that might be in their rooms. They don’t have assets or an estate that would allow them to pay for a funeral. Ralph assured me “that as long as we have notice that there's going to be a vet’s funeral, we’ll make sure they get a proper send-off.” Ralph says he's regularly involved in providing honor guards for funerals. “And if we don't have enough guys ourselves that day, we’ll call some of the other Legion posts to be sure we have the people to do it.” All honorably discharged veterans are entitled to have a United States flag on their casket. The flag is traditionally presented to a family member of the deceased veteran ‘on behalf of a grateful nation.’ Flag etiquette precludes a flag from being buried in a grave so I asked Ralph what would happen if there was no family member there to receive the flag if the veteran had died alone. Ralph said he would accept the flag on the veteran’s behalf “and fly it for a month over the Legion, and put a sign inside letting people know who the flag was flying in honor of.”
All honorably discharged veterans are entitled to have a headstone or grave marker provided by the government at no charge, showing their rank and branch of service, so at least no vets here, even if they died penniless, will have to lie unknown.

The funeral industry has come in for its share of knocks and bad press in recent times, some of it undoubtedly deserved. The deathcare industry has its share of shysters, just like any other business you could name. The people I talked to while writing this article, however, especially the funeral directors, take the responsibility of service that goes with their profession pretty seriously, which I found quite heartening. I didn’t start out by planning to write some kind of expose of “what goes on behind the burial of indigent people”, but nonetheless intended to let the cards fall where they dropped. We’re all born with nothing, and we leave with nothing, too. Death has a way of leveling the playing field between people with lots of material possessions and those with few. We do OK here, I think... but maybe the dead poor have been laughing up their sleeves the whole time.