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Indigent Deaths

What happens when an indigent person dies in New Hampshire?  Who pays for their final disposition?  For years, hundreds of years, local communities interred their indigent population in “pauper’s graves”.  The grave sites were donated to the family either by the city or town or the church, depending upon who ran the cemetery.  Local funeral directors  provided the casket either free or for a nominal fee.  Often these graves would go unmarked until the family could afford a headstone.  Sometimes, the local welfare department gave the funeral home a small stipend (a few hundred dollars) to help defray their costs.  Now days, with the average funeral costing over $6,000 and cemetery lots selling for well over $1,000 in some communities, indigents are no longer buried.  Municipal and chuch cemeteries simply are no longer able to give away this expensive real estate and funeral homes are not able to donate thousands of dollars worth of services and merchandise and expect to stay in business.

In New Hampshire, most cities and towns now provide a “welfare benefit” of $750 to the funeral home for handling the final disposition of an indigent person.  This money is not dolled out without a singificant screening process.  The family of the deceased must fill out an  application to prove that there are no financial means to pay for the funeral.  The welfare department, in turn, must research the claim and ensure that all other financial options have been exhausted.  This process can take from several hours to up to a week.  And the process stops over the weekend often leaving families feeling unsure of the fate of their loved ones.  It’s not that the city or towns are cruel, its simply the nature of the bureaucratic process.

As the economy continues to head south, more and more families are relying on welfare assistance at the time of loss.  Last year alone, our firm handled over 75 indigent families and the number is expected to be over 100 this year.  Statewide, we estimate over 400 families will be in need of welfare assistance when their loved one passes away.  As isf this number is not alarming enough, there are a number of related issues to this crisis.

First, the Governor recently announced that budget cuts may results in eliminating State funds which were available in the past to assist indigent families. If this passes, then cities and towns, many of whom are struggling financially, will have to pick up the tab.  Second, since the welfare payment is only $750, the option to bury indigents is no longer an option.  Nearly all indigent residents are now cremated.  For many, this is not a problem.  But for some, cremation is either again their wishes or even their religion, in the case Muslims and  Orthodox Jews.  This poses a huge dilemma for the family and the funeral home.  Finally, many smaller funeral homes simply cannot provide this service any longer.  While $750 may seem like a tidy sum, the actual cost for most firms to transfer the deceased from the place of death to the funeral home, file the necessary paperwork, meet with the family, transfer the deceased to the crematory, pay the crematory fees and state fees, far exceeds what the funeral home receives from the welfare departments.  And with more and more families needing assistance, this issue will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

I don’t have an answer to the problem.  Our firm has been able to continue to provide this community service but many firms cannot; not because they don’t want to but because they simply cannot afford to.  While no one probably cares about the profitability woes of the funeral industry, the fact is with skyrocketing cremation rates and huge investments in buldings, inventory and staff, this is simply not the lucrative profession it once was.

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