Monday, August 27, 2001

Indigents would be cremated

Hamilton looking to cut cost of burials

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — The graves of people who could not afford their own burials are tucked into a corner of Greenwood Cemetery in Hamilton.

        These “pauper” graves have simple granite markers with the name of the deceased and the years of birth and death. Relatives or friends have decorated some of the more recent ones with flowers, with small stuffed animals and with messages such as: “To Mom, Grandma. We love you.”

        But soon, instead of being buried, the bodies of those who occupy society's bottom economic rungs in Hamilton might have to be cremated. Hamilton City Council is preparing to pass an ordinance that would require that all indigents be cremated, a much less expensive alternative to burial.

        “Cremation is a cost-savings measure, and it still provides a respectful disposition of the deceased,” Hamilton Mayor Adolf Olivas said. “In these tight economic times, and without the assistance of the state, we have to do something.”

        At stake for Hamilton are tens of thousands of dollars and valuable cemetery space.

        Until July 1, Ohio paid for most indigent burials. But a lean budget forced legislators to slice the $1.5 million that was budgeted for this expense.

        The result: The responsibility for paying for the burial of all indigents has shifted to cities, villages, townships and, possibly, counties.

        Hamilton's cremation ordinance and the state's decision to stop funding indigent

        burials are budget moves that raise religious concerns and questions of fairness.

        “It's grossly unfair to treat poor people that way,” said Donald Jordan, owner of Green-Hall & Jordan Funeral Home in Hamilton. “If the state of Ohio can fund sports stadiums, it ought to be able to bury the indigent. I'm opposed to Hamilton's ordinance. I don't think cremation should be forced on anybody.”

        Hamilton would be the first community in the Tristate and one of a small number statewide to have such an ordinance. Hamilton is a city undergoing rough economic times; its officials expect the number of burials it must pay for to more than triple, from 12 to 40 a year.

        “We want to save money,” City Manager Steve Sorrell said.

        If council passes the ordinance at its final reading on Wednesday, it would take effect Sept. 30.

        More communities may follow Hamilton's lead, said John Mahoney, deputy director of the Ohio Municipal League.

        “We may see some more ordinances like this,” he said. “Some communities just have informal policies.”

        In the Tristate, there are more than 250 state-reimbursed indigent burials a year.

        In Kentucky, counties must pay for all indigent burials. In Indiana, the townships pay for most of the indigent burials.

        Ohio had been paying for the burial of indigents who qualified for public assistance, which was at least 75 percent of all indigent burials.

        Hamilton County, which received $88,456 from the state for indigent burials last year, may have to seek other options, said County Commissioner John Dowlin.

        “This is just one more case where the state says, "We aren't going to do it anymore,' and it's hurting the counties,” he said.

Budget burden
               Ohio counties have been paying for all state-reimbursed indigent burials. Some, like Hamilton County, also have been paying for all non-reimbursed indigent burials in its borders.

        But now that counties receive no state money for these burials, officials from Hamilton and Butler counties have asked their prosecutors' offices to clarify whether counties have any responsibility for paying for indigent burials.

        But, regardless of legal obligations, officials of both counties don't want to leave indigent people in a pinch.

        “We're very sensitive to people getting a decent burial,” Butler County Administrator Derek Conklin said.

        Middletown will monitor the number of its indigent burials in the next year, said City Health Commissioner Ron Murray.

        “If it becomes too much of a burden to the budget, we'll have to look at it,” he said.

        The cost difference between cremations and burials is substantial.

        A state-reimbursed cremation had cost up to $750, while a state-reimbursed indigent burial had cost a maximum of $1,500. The state provided $750 for indigents 11 years or older and $500 for those under 11, with the families being permitted to add up to $750.

        Besides saving money, cremations save cemetery space. Hamilton officials say that if their yearly number of indigent burials triples, the section of Greenwood Cemetery set aside for them could be used up in three or four years.

Cremations more common
               Cremation has become acceptable to more Americans in recent decades.

        In 1962, only 5 percent of Americans who died were cremated. Last year 26 percent were cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America in Chicago.

        “It's not looked at any more as something out of the ordinary,” said Jack Springer, the association's executive director.

        This trend is also partly a reflection of today's transient society, with many people dying far from their hometowns, he said.

        “The nuclear family is spread all over the United States,” Mr. Springer said. “There is no longer a family cemetery plot.”

        Also, some religions have softened their stances against cremation. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, once banned cremation, but has permitted it since 1963.

        Jews are split in their views about cremation. Orthodox Jews prohibit cremation because they believe in bodily resurrection. Reformed Jews permit cremation.

        Some Protestants, such as Southern Baptists, frown on cremation, and followers of Islam also oppose it.

        Dr. Sardar Tanveer, chairman of the Islamic Association of Cincinnati's funeral arrangements committee, was disturbed when he heard of Hamilton's proposed ordinance.

        “They shouldn't pass that law,” said Dr. Tanveer. “Cremation is strictly against Islamic laws. The body has to be buried.”

        Dr. William Karwisch, Hamilton health commissioner, said the cremation ordinance mentions no exceptions, but he said “extenuating circumstances” could be considered.

        Mr. Olivas said he would hope that indigents' relatives who object to cremation would pay for a burial.

        The average American funeral costs about $5,000, while state- reimbursed indigent burials in Ohio are $1,500 or less. When necessary, funeral homes have buried indigents free.

        Many funeral home directors are concerned that the state's decision to eliminate the indigent burials budget will cost them even more money.

        “We can't expect funeral directors to pay out-of-pocket expenses,” said Steve Gehlert, executive director of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association.

Priority to the living
               The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services decided to eliminate indigent burial funding because it wasn't as critical as its welfare-to-work programs, foster care, public assistance, child care licensing, Medicaid and other services, said Dennis Evans, department spokesman.

        “It's a tight budget, and very hard decisions had to be made about what programs to cut,” he said. “We have some vital programs that are competing for the same money.”

        For large and small communities, the dilemma of whether to cremate or bury indigents may boil down to a simple fact, said Skip Lawhorn, an investigator with the Hamilton County Coroner's Office.

        “It's a lot cheaper to bury ashes than to bury a body.”


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