You Can Now Be Too Poor To Die
Maybe the coroner could save money by putting the ashes in a coffee urn?
What happens when poor people die? Well, in Illinois, the state will provide up to $1,655 for funeral and cremation/burial services for those whose families are too poor to pay for them.
But James Keller, the coroner of Adams County, Illinois, is not hearing it. Citing previous budget cuts in which the state cut funding for this service, Keller has created a policy that he hopes will force these people to give him money whether they can afford to do so or not.
Keller's great idea is to hold onto the remains of the indigent dead hostage and require their families to "sign over their rights" to these things if they cannot afford to pay him $1000. If they can't pay, he keeps the person's ashes, and tosses them into an unmarked grave. He also holds on to the death certificates of these people, so that their relatives cannot access their bank accounts or life insurance until he sets it up so that the county can "recoup the costs" after they are able to do that. He says he holds onto those because one time a family who said they couldn't afford a burial had received life insurance.
He claims that this fee is necessary to pay funeral homes and the mortuary, because the state of Illinois is no longer paying for the funerals of indigent people. Even though they are. In fact, he claims that this is actually a really swell option for the poor.
Via ABC News:
The county's poverty rate of 13 percent is on par with the overall rate in Illinois. Keller says his approach protects taxpayers in the small county along the Mississippi River, ensures local funeral homes get money for their services and gives poor families an alternative to paying for a full burial. He's continued the policy even though the state has resumed paying for the funerals.
"We do our very best and our due diligence to taxpayers, and we try to be supportive of families, with the hand that we're dealt with by the state," Keller said.
The state, by the way, has appropriated $9 million to take care of these expenses. Keller, however, along with several funeral directors, is somehow unaware of this and rather than looking up what the current budget situation even is with regards to this, is very excited about extorting money from the poor in exchange for the remains of their dead relatives.
Rod Cookson, co-owner of Zehender Robinson Stormer Cookson Funeral Home in Quincy, said at one point the state owed his business about $20,000. Cookson said he didn't know the Legislature restored the funding.
"They're bankrupt," he said of the state.
He's not the only funeral home director who's either unaware that funding is available again or has given up on the state. Though lawmakers appropriated $9.3 million this year — the same amount as the 2015 budget year — the number of claims has plummeted, from 5,652 in the 2015 budget year to 1,084 so far this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Now, it is certainly wrong for funeral homes to have to pay these expenses themselves. It is absolutely understandable that they would not want to do that. $20,000 is a lot of money!
Of course, the strange thing is we can't really know where he's even getting that $20,000 figure, because there's no real data on what cremation services are even supposed to cost to begin with, because the Federal Trade Commission actually allows funeral home directors to keep their rates hidden unless someone asks them directly what they are (and sometimes not even then, it's up to them). It's not as if you can go online and compare cremation rates from funeral homes like you are looking for a hotel. One study found that they can run anywhere from $550 to $10,000, depending on where you go. I feel like I'd have a lot more sympathy for these funeral directors if it didn't seem like they were running a scam otherwise.
Cookson also told ABC News that "These people that don't have any money are very, very lucky to live in Adams County."
"These people," it seems, do not share his opinion.
"I felt like it was a kidnapping. He was being held against his will," said Tom McElroy, whose brother, Mark, died last year with nothing more than the $200 in his wallet.
After Chris Weible died last month, his family held a memorial service at a Quincy church with just a photograph and an empty container. Weible and his ex-wife, Wendy Smith, who had three children together, were both on disability.
"I just think they pick on the people that are poor," Smith said.
While Keller, a funeral director himself, claims that he gives people ample chance to change their minds about signing their rights to the body away, Smith says that was not the case for her.
She says she was unclear about what the form she was signing would do, and that she asked Keller if he could work with her to make payments toward the $1,000 and he refused. She also says Keller told her that if she didn't pay, he'd bury the ashes in a cemetery and not reveal the location. He denies that, but several friends and family say they heard Keller make that statement or that he separately told them the same thing.
So, just to get things straight here -- we have no idea what cremation actually even costs, they're cremating people anyway regardless of whether or not the family will pay, and the state will give them money to pay for these expenses, but instead of getting that money from the state, they're going to hold the remains that they already cremated hostage in order to get $1000 from the families of the poor, causing unnecessary pain to people who are already grieving a loved one?
That seems like some bullshit.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse