Mike Morrison said the problem he’s seeing today with indigent burial was not present 23 years ago when he began working in the funeral home
“People are abandoning family members,” Morrison said, and he took his concerns to the Colbert County Commission.
Morrison said people are refusing to take responsibility for the burial of loved ones or are not making payments after arranging for burial services.
“It’s getting worse,” said Morrison, the son of funeral home owner Joe Morrison Jr. “What I don’t want happening is for us to become a dumping or holding ground.”
Tammy Sharp, manager of Colbert Memorial Chapel in Tuscumbia, said she suspects the problem is yet another product of the poor economy. Some of it has to do with people simply not caring for a loved one, but many people she speaks to just don’t have the money, she said.
“I think it’s straight up the economy,” she said. “I would say that some people would do it, but they don’t have any means.”
Billy Richardson, manager of Greenview Funeral Home in Florence, is experiencing the same problems.
“We have really had a run on it lately,” Richardson said. “People don’t have any money. We’ve had several cases over here lately where we had to bury them over in the paupers section over in Florence City Cemetery.”
Richardson said it’s common for discussions with families about funeral arrangements to begin with comments like, “I just want to tell you up front that we don’t have any money.”
In Russellville, Pinkard Funeral Home owner Rex Pinkard said he’s seen the problem worsen in the past couple of years.
“We’re having a lot more cremations than we did,” Pinkard said.
Cremation is a less expensive option funeral directors offer clients with limited means.
Unlike some funeral homes that are owned by larger companies or franchises from outside the area, Pinkard is a family business.
Pinkard said some of his elderly customers truly cannot afford the cost of a burial and will accept a less expensive funeral. Some of the younger customers, however, “just don’t care,” he said.
He’s had individuals declare bankruptcy after services have been rendered and others who depend on local churches to pay for burials, in one case three for one family.
Pinkard said he’s been forced to ask some customers to put up collateral when they ask to make payments for funeral services. He’s found that payments are made if he has a vehicle that can be sold if the person starts missing payments.
“Every business has to have their money,” Pinkard said.
Greenhill Funeral Home Manager Phillip Hardeman said many people have cashed in insurance policies, which leaves them with no money for burial expenses.
“The way the economy is, the ones who had life insurance used it for something else,” Hardeman said.
Colbert County Coroner Carlton Utley said the legal responsibility for burial falls to the deceased person’s closest relative, such as a spouse, adult child or parent.
“If there is no family at all, and they have no property and no money, they are declared indigent,” Utley said.
Lauderdale and Colbert counties set aside money in their general fund budgets to pay burial expenses for individuals who are truly indigent and have no relatives.
“We work with the funeral homes and the funeral directors to certify these people are indigent,” Lauderdale County Administrator Jenoice Bevis said. “We have worked with the local funeral homes and have arrived at a minimum cost where they can do what is referred to as a pauper’s burial or indigent burial.”
The Colbert County Commission budgets $600 each year for indigent burials at an estimated cost of $300 each.
General Fund Accountant James Brumley said the last indigent burial expense was in October 2003.
When the situation arises in Florence, city spokesman Phil Stevenson said Cemetery Sexton Frank Townsell and Lauderdale County Coroner Andy High work to find family, friends or churches that can help with burial expenses.
“If this search fails to come up with any resources, and this does happen one or two times a year, then with the assistance from area funeral parlors, they are buried in a section of the cemetery with as much dignity and respect as possible,” Stevenson said.
He said the cemetery is required to reserve a portion of the property for “catastrophic events” that could result in widespread deaths.
During the meeting when Morrison addressed the commission, Chairman Rex Burleson suggested the county investigate assisting in the burial of a man whose remaining family members refused to pay his funeral expenses.
After contacting an attorney with the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, Burleson said county money could not be used for the burial of anyone except an indigent person.
He said the responsibility to dispose of individuals who have been abandoned by their relatives falls on another elected official: the coroner.
Utley said he is trying to develop a plan for the county before the problem worsens.
“It’s becoming a problem statewide,” Utley said.
What it might come down to is more people being declared indigent, which is the only way county funds can be expended on funeral expenses.
For that to happen, the deceased has to be without money, property and relatives in the county, which might not be the case in some of the situations described by local funeral directors.
Because it’s less expensive than a burial, the county might have to utilize cremation if its number of indigent burials increases.
“That is not what I personally prefer we do,” Utley said.
He said there is no easy answer for the situation, but he knows he cannot expect funeral homes to provide services for free.
Utley, the north Alabama district director for the Alabama Coroners’ Association, said the number of indigent deaths is increasing statewide and in some cases economic reasons are to blame.
“I’ve had more unclaimed bodies at ECM Hospital than I’ve ever had within the last six months -- at least five or six,” High said.
The majority of those people didn’t have any family to claim them or they were estranged from their families, he said.
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.