Article 25

Unclaimed and Unnamed

In Uncategorized on 06/01/2012 at 1:34 pm

The grave of an unclaimed body. Photo by Paul Davis.

Cincinnati breaking state law on indigent burials

By Gregory Flannery


Baltimore Pike Cemetery is the final resting place of at least one famous person, Phillip Sydney “Red” Ehret, who died in 1940. His 11 years as a pitcher in professional baseball – for teams that included the Cincinnati Reds – featured appearances in the World Series and one season, 1890, when he won 25 games.

Near the entrance to the cemetery stands a monument honoring military veterans from the North Fairmount neighborhood where Baltimore Pike is located.

The recent Memorial Day holiday found many graves decorated with flowers. But hundreds of people buried there were not remembered with flowers, whether or not they were veterans. Their graves don’t even have markers bearing their names. They died poor, their bodies found in the city of Cincinnati but unclaimed by any family members.

The city pays to cremate unclaimed bodies and bury the ashes, their graves identified only by metal rings 3.5 inches in diameter, each bearing simply a number – in violation of state law.

‘It’s a tragedy’

It is not a rare event for someone to die with no one to pay for his or her burial. In 2011 in Cincinnati, 86 people were reported as unclaimed bodies, according to Dr. Camille Jones, the city’s assistant health commissioner for community health and environmental health services. Some die on the streets, some in hospitals or nursing homes, some in private residences.

When that happens, Ohio law requires the city or township in which the person lived to pay for disposal of the body. Since 2006, Cincinnati has used cremation – rather than what funeral directors call “full body burial.” Cremation is cheaper.

“If a person dies and there’s no one claiming the body, we are notified by police or by an institution,” Jones says. “We have a contract with a funeral home to pick up the remains and to arrange for cremation of the remains and burial of the cremains.”

Of the 86 bodies originally reported as unclaimed last year, 12 were eventually claimed by family members, Jones says.

“There are a few relationships where you are required to claim it,” she says. “A spouse is required to claim remains. If a child is under 18, the parents are required to claim them. But a different type of relative, a remote relative, you’re not required. We’re certainly not encouraging that, because there’s only a limited amount of funding.”

The law requiring the city to handle burial of unclaimed bodies is not a social-service program that provides for the burial or cremation of poor people. There is no provision by which low-income people can apply for the city to pay for funerals for loved ones.

“If you decide, ‘I can’t afford to pay for the burial,’ you can’t come in and say, ‘I would like you to take care of that.’ It’s just when people don’t claim the body,” Jones says. “There are a lot of families that are in financial straits, but this is a public-health matter. It is not an indigent burial program. The whole purpose of the program is public health. You want to make sure there is respectful but prompt taking care of human bodies.”

But “prompt” is a relative term, and sometimes cremation and burial of the ashes – or “cremains” – can be delayed. The city’s health department tries to find family members to claim – and, more important, pay for the disposal of – bodies, Jones says.

“In a few cases, a family member finds out,” she says. “If it happens before they’ve done the cremation, we ask them to pay for the cost of transport. If it’s after cremation, they must pay for the cost of cremation. In legal terms, the city is claiming the body and has performed a service.

“There was one instance where it actually happened a little too fast, and there was somebody who could come. But they were in a rush to have the body removed. It’s really a tragedy. It’s hard on people.”

‘Trying to find a way’

More common is that a significant delay occurs between the discovery of an unclaimed body and its disposal by the city. This is not a subject that anyone involved with the process wants to talk about.

The city has a contract with Schaefer Busby Doyle Funeral Home downtown for picking up unclaimed bodies and arranging for their cremation and burial. Funeral Director Lee Doyle won’t comment on the process. He says the funeral home’s contract with the city prohibits his discussing it, but a copy of the contract provided by Jones contains no such restrictions.

City Manager Milton Dohoney didn’t return a call seeking information. Neither did City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

If last year’s totals – 74 ultimately unclaimed bodies – holds fast, someone in Cincinnati dies and his or her body goes unclaimed an average of every five days. But it’s been awhile since the cremains of any unclaimed bodies have been buried at Baltimore Pike Cemetery, according to Steve Bittner, president of the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society, which handles operations at Baltimore Pike Cemetery.

“We have not done any for the last several months,” he says.

John Bressler, family services representative at the cemetery, says, “They usually bring them in groups of 10.”

Jones acknowledges there is a backlog, with six deceased persons awaiting cremation and the cremated remains of 13 people awaiting burial.

“There are some,” she says. “We actually don’t have an average time between cremation and burial.”

The reason for the delay? Jones says it’s because she learned last year that the city isn’t handling the burials in compliance with state law. Now, she says, the city is trying to figure out what to do next.

The Ohio Revised Code requires cities or townships to pay for the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies. It also requires something more.

“Such officials shall provide, at the grave of the person or, if the cremated remains are buried, at the grave of the person’s cremated remains, a stone or concrete marker on which the person’s name and age, if known, and the date of death shall be inscribed,” the law says.

The reason for the delay in burying the cremated remains of unclaimed bodies in Cincinnati comes down to this: money.

“The issue we have is the state law is written to say that, when the process is being done, it must be with an inscribed concrete marker,” Jones says. “We found out that many jurisdictions are not doing it with a concrete marker. The cost of a concrete marker is very high.

“If there is, in fact, a long time, it would be because of the marker cost. We were doing what many jurisdictions do. We were using a metallic marker. Now I know it’s state law. If there’s a delay, it’s not out of disrespect to anybody. It’s because we’re trying to find a way that meets state law and that’s sustainable.”

‘Sad position’

No one suggests that unclaimed bodies in Cincinnati are treated with deliberate disregard or disrespect. Schaefer Busby Doyle Funeral Home is, in fact, a rather distinguished institution. Founded in 1836 by Dutch immigrant John Wiltsee, whose relatives fought under Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War, the funeral home is, according to a historical marker at the company’s current site on West Ninth Street, Ohio’s oldest funeral establishment.

“As far as an individual, the cremation itself is the same as if your family brought you here,” says funeral director Lee Doyle. “The people are treated with the same care and respect.”

Money is the issue.

The city’s contract with Schaefer Busby Doyle Funeral Home allocates $2,020 for pickup, cremation and burial of each unclaimed human body, Jones says. For 2012, the city has allocated $60,000 for the program, she says.

“If the body has to be stored before cremation, there might be additional charges,” she says.

At that rate, the city has allocated enough money to pay for the cremation and burial of about 30 unclaimed bodies – less than half the number processed in 2011. And that doesn’t include the inscribed concrete markers that the city now acknowledges are required by state law.

Baltimore Pike Cemetery – a private, non-profit organization that contracts with the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society for labor and daily operations – is, like Schaefer Busby Doyle Funeral Home, a stately institution, its manicured lawns providing a place of repose and dignity for thousands of people, a place of remembrance and reflection for their loved ones.

Yet Section 18 of the cemetery is its least decorative section. Hundreds of graves of unclaimed bodies lie in that section. The most recent burials there by the city – the latest marked as grave 331-C – contain only metallic rings, with no concrete markers providing names and dates as required by state law, and no flowers placed by loved ones. The earth in which the most recent indigent burials have taken place is cracked, with the spikes holding down some of the metallic markers rising up, not far from a pile of plywood and lumber dumped near brush nearby.

Jones says the city is studying ways to cover the cost of respectfully disposing of unclaimed bodies in a manner that complies with state law without incurring huge costs for concrete markers.

“We basically had one bidder for the concrete marker,” she says. “We’re researching what we can do to bring that cost down. We are investigating other options to bring the cost back down. The law says we must recover the body and cause it to be buried or cremated, and that will happen.

“It’s a sad position to be in. Friends can’t claim the body but they want to have a place to go and mourn.”

A sort of loophole in the language of the state law could provide the solution. Jones says the law only requires concrete markers “if the cremated remains are buried.” One way to comply with the law could be to not bury the cremains.

“We’re trying to see if we can purchase a mausoleum where we can inter the remains, where we can mark the vault; but since they’re not buried, we would not be required to have individual concrete markers,” she says.

On a recent visit to Baltimore Pike Cemetery, a reporter waited while John Bressler, family services representative, spoke to a grieving mother whose 3-month-old child had died. Bressler listed the pricing for various burial options: an unsealed concrete box costs $550, a sealed vault costs $750, placement in the cemetery’s mausoleum costs between $3,800 and $7,100.

Burial of an infant in the cemetery’s children’s section costs a mere $75, consistent with the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society’s description of its work as a “ministry,” an act of mercy for grieving families.

How many more unclaimed bodies will wait as the city of Cincinnati decides how to proceed, conserving funds while complying with state law?

“I can’t tell you what time,” Jones says. “I can tell you we’re working on it.”


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