The Navy veteran couldn’t afford to live, and he couldn’t afford to die.
When the 44-year-old Clark County man died in March, with no relatives around, the government was left to pick up his funeral tab. The Department of Veteran Affairs paid $300 of his cremation expenses, but it wasn’t enough.
Clark County’s Social Services Department picked up the remaining $125.
When the friends and families of the dead can’t pay or be located, the agency steps in — something it’s had to do more often lately as the economy struggles to find its footing and Nevada continues to lead the nation in foreclosures and unemployment. The number of those too poor to pay for their final rest — whether burial or cremation — jumped by 11 percent in the past fiscal year.
The county has managed the task with help from veterans groups, friends, co-workers and families of the deceased, some of it made possible by a new law that allows people other than family members to help pay for funeral costs. Last year, the county spent more than $462,000, roughly $481 per person, on indigent burials and cremations. That figure is up $63,000 from the previous year.
The number of county ceremonies grew to 959, up from 867 the year before. The majority, 915, of those were cremations, a cheaper option for county officials spending taxpayer dollars on the unclaimed dead. Forty-three of those were cremations for veterans, 21 of which were partially funded by the VA. Burials are usually reserved for religious reasons. The average cost for cremation is $450 as opposed to burials which average $1,827, a county spokesman said.
HANDLING THE SURGE
Tim Burch, the department’s interim director, said the county is managing the uptick well despite its own budget constraints.
Since 1998, the county has buried or cremated more than 10,500 indigent people and placed them into unmarked graves and county-owned crypts. State statute mandates the service.
The increase isn’t felt just in Clark County. Other places nationwide have reported an upswing in indigent burials and cremations, including Jacksonville, Fla.
According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, more than half of about 50 respondents in a recent survey reported an increase in the number of unclaimed bodies.
But who are these people?
County officials said state law prohibits them from specifically identifying anyone because they are still considered social services clients. The county considers people in a two-person household with less than $1,925 monthly income and less than $3,000 in assets as indigent.
Some of them are homeless. Others are “struggling to get by, unable to work, living on a fixed income because of a disability or unemployed with no resources.”
“Few have health insurance,” Burch said. “Even fewer have burial insurance.”
The research to find a person’s family is extensive, with what little information is known plugged into databases including Social Security and VA for possible military service. That process with bank records, insurance records, identification and any other federal forms of subsidy help determine eligibility for a county ceremony.
“It’s not an overnight service,” Burch said. “We do our best to keep it moving swiftly, balancing the needs of the decedents, families and taxpayers, who are graciously providing to this service.”
Burch said the community’s transient nature can slow down the process.
“This unit has a special job to do, and it’s taken very seriously,” he added.
BERMUDA SHORTS AND BEACH SHOES
Dave Anson, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Boulder City, used to coordinate with social services to ensure poor veterans were given a proper ceremony. Attendees weren’t always dressed formally for the occasion.
“We had everything from suits to Bermudas and beach shoes at these ceremonies,” Anson said.
Ceremonies for people like Walter, whose last name Anson couldn’t remember, a combat medic laid to rest in a maple casket a few years ago. The Vietnam veteran died of congestive heart failure. He was in his late 50s.
Walter was one of the lucky ones, whose upgraded casket was donated by someone with a conscience. Funeral homes traditionally use a thinner fiberboard casket covered in carpetlike material.
In Walter’s case, his military experience entitled him to a free burial outside of county resources. Some of his relatives were located and attended the ceremony but did not help pay the expenses. They had no obligation to pay.
Anson helped with Walter’s ceremony. He has since retired from the program, citing the sparsely attended ceremonies and the struggle to find a person’s family and friends as becoming too emotionally difficult.
“What ate me up more was trying to get people there that should appreciate what the service member did. When you get into that kind of thing, you get into a service member’s life from where they were serving to where they died. It can be more than a little difficult,” Anson said.
Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy was recently approached by a decedent’s family members who said they couldn’t afford to pay for services. The family called friends to ask for donations to help pay the costs, something state law didn’t allow last year.
“When your house is in foreclosure, you’ve lost your jobs, you can’t pay for anything, you’re barely able to put food on the table, then a loved one dies, the last thing you can do is worry about how to bury them,” Murphy said. “You have to worry about the living.”
ANYONE CAN PAY
It wasn’t until Gov. Brian Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 319 that others — besides the legal next of kin who are 18 years old or older and can prove they know the decedent — could pay for the burial or cremation.
Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, D-North Las Vegas, who introduced the bill, said she was motivated after the death of her husband’s colleague.
No family could be located, and the man was cremated by the county.
“He had many people who knew him and wanted to give him a last farewell, but we weren’t able to,” Diaz said.
The law, which went into effect May 13, does not give those who help pay any claim to that person’s estate.
Diaz said she hasn’t seen any immediate effect from the new law but wants to spread the word that it’s possible for people to help pay the costs for burials or cremations of those they know are too poor to pay for themselves.
“It’s not something a lot of people think about,” Murphy said. “There’s this part of all of us, even me included, where you don’t want to think about your mortality.”
Jennifer Keene, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the problem stems from a lack of conversation about death in society.
“People barely plan for their retirement,” Keene said. “They think more about how to plan their vacation. We plan very little for death. We can’t go there in our heads. How do you want to die? Who do you want to be your caregiver? How much pain do you want to tolerate? I want to die in my sleep peacefully, but that’s not most people’s reality. We don’t confront it, so we don’t plan for it. It’s a delicate conversation to have with your family members.”
Diaz’s bill combined with the county’s efforts to find other financial resources first, “helps alleviate the county’s financial burden, but it’s a way of recognizing a person’s broader social relationships and how that matters even after they die.”
Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-455-4519.