In life, she had a name. In death, she became a county statistic.
Wanda Ford, a longtime resident of Cherokee, was 66 when she died of an apparent heart attack Feb. 23.
She rented her Seventh Street home, had no family, no life insurance or burial plans and no financial assets to cover her death expenses.
She is what the government calls indigent.
Ford was cremated last week at Colbert Memorial Funeral Home. Her ashes, or cremains as they are called by industry professionals, will be placed among others Colbert County Coroner Carlton Utley keeps in his office, hoping to find someone, anyone, who would want to perform the final act of scattering them or burying them.
There are no designated pauper cemeteries in Colbert and Lauderdale counties. Individuals like Ford become a drain on local governments when they die.
Someone must see to disposal of the body. That task falls on local officials who search for a benevolent, and affordable, solution.
“There’s nothing sadder to me than that situation, where a person lived their life just to have no one in the end to assure a proper burial,” Colbert County Commissioner Roger Creekmore said. “These cases come before our commission, and we have to deal with the circumstances case by case. We can pay $300 toward the expenses because that’s what’s legislated to us through a local act. But we can only do that after determining indigence.”
And that process can take weeks, even months. It involves a thorough search for blood relatives, financial assets or liquidation of assets.
Utley said funeral homes can’t bury a body for $300.
“They just can’t do it,” he said. “It’s about $500 just to open the grave. The funeral homes here do all they can to help us, but they’re private businesses and they just can’t be expected to eat this expense. There is simply no public funding for these indigent people when they die.”
Cremation has long been the more affordable process, Utley said, but $300 doesn’t cover the cost of cremation, either.
Storing the body until the person is formally declared indigent presents another problem. The formal declaration is part of the process in gaining public funds for burial.
Ford’s body was kept for 10 days at the Helen Keller Hospital morgue in Sheffield. The process of having her declared indigent was quicker than usual because of the lack of family and assets. Because the hospital is small and heavily utilized, it could have become a problem if the process of declaring Ford indigent had taken longer.
In life, despite her meager income, Ford was never late paying her rent, said Dot Poston, who along with her husband, Jimmy Dale, owned the home where Ford lived.
Ford’s income consisted of a Social Security check and her deceased husband’s veteran benefits. Because those checks come at the first of the month, and she died six days earlier, the income never arrived.
“She would have had enough with that money for a burial of some type, but those agencies didn’t allow it,” Utley said. “It bothers me that the only thing we can do because of the lack of funding is cremation. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s heartbreaking.
“I always try to at least have a minister come and say a prayer. It seems so cold, this sad process, but I make it a point to be there for every one of these indigent people.”
Utley said Colbert County usually has a couple of indigent burial cases each year. Neighboring Lauderdale County has from 10 to 15 cases a year. At one time, there was an indigent section in Florence City Cemetery but when it filled to near capacity, the county began cremating the bodies.
“I much prefer a ground burial, but the space just isn’t available,” Lauderdale County Coroner Andy High said.
The Lauderdale County Commission allows $750 for indigent cremations. Cremations are rotated among local funeral homes. High, like Utley, keeps the cremains in his office for a time. At some point, he said he’ll bury them, using small grave markers to identify final resting places.
Funeral home operator Mike Morrison has appealed to the Colbert County Commission “for a uniform policy with a course of action for these situations.”
He said funeral homes, his own included, are often involved in indigent burials.
“The numbers have gotten so high; we just can’t take that on,” Morrison said. “We can’t keep an (indigent) body here waiting on the process (of declaration) to play out because that body is decomposing and that’s a health risk to my employees.
“It is truly a heartbreaking situation. If we were talking one or two cases a year, that would be one thing. But it’s a lot more than that. We have 30 to 40 situations a year. I don’t mean to seem heartless. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Nobody knows how these situations break our hearts, but we have to survive as a business.”
He said in some cases, there are family members but they are too poor to pay for a burial.
Creekmore said indigent burial is a bigger problem than the county can handle and there should be legislation in place to keep people from abandoning a body.
“Maybe just a couple people a year in this county turn out to truly be indigent,” Creekmore said. “It’s a sad commentary on our society that this isn’t handled better. It’s the responsibility of the government and society.”
One misconception people often believe regarding burial of the poor is that their status as a military veteran affords them free government internment.
Mary Day Smith, adjutant for the American Legion Hall in Florence, said she is approached two or three times a month by families of veterans looking for help with burial expenses.
“There simply are no funeral benefits,” Smith said. “If you served some years, (the Veterans Administration) might send someone to play the bugle and fold the flag.
“I’d say that the last two years we’ve seen the biggest increase in this problem. It angers people. I understand that their loved one served this country, but that benefit just isn’t there. It goes back to a lack of planning on the part of families.”
Sometimes communities attempt to assist with the burial of its indigent residents. That’s what happened in Ford’s case.
Described as a relatively private person, Ford had a small group of people she talked with regularly. Cherokee resident Shari Borden was among them. After learning of Ford’s death, she appealed to those who knew Ford to help with the burial.
“I knew her for seven or eight years, and she was the nicest woman I had ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Borden said. “Word got back to us that if no one claimed her body she’d become just a number, and I find that appalling. Everyone deserves a decent burial and a marked grave.”
Borden contacted a local bank in Cherokee and was told a Good Samaritan Fund could be established in Ford’s name to try to generate money for burial. But time was of the essence. Ford’s body was decomposing at the hospital morgue and there was no guarantee the bank account would collect money at all, or in time.
Borden believes society failed Ford.
“It’s a sad thing all around because we couldn’t afford to give (Ford) a nice burial, but when she was alive she was kind and she mattered to people,” Borden said. “I’m OK with the cremation, but I sure would like to see a plan in place to take care of such folks. They deserve better.”
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.