A steady increase in the number of indigent burials has prompted Mobile County officials to make changes to a program providing basic end-of-life services for those who would otherwise lack the means to pay for them.

For more than century, each of Alabama’s 67 counties has been a required by state law to cover the costs associated with burying “any person having no estate and leaving no relatives.”

As Lagniappe initially reported in a cover story June 2, Mobile County paid for 149 indigent burials or cremations in 2015, compared to just 42 in 2005. In dollars and cents, that has translated to a 268 percent increase in the cost of the program — jumping from $30,529 in 2006 to $113,700 in 2013.

Those costs have only dropped a single percentage point in the past two years, and according to Edith Gray, an assistant to Mobile County’s deputy administrator, there was previously “no accountability” for what assets the people who used the program actually had.

“The only thing we checked were property records because we had no way of checking other things ourselves. I don’t have access to bank records or anything like that, so we were just relying on their word,” Gray said. “Even though they had to fill out an affidavit and have it notarized, we just thought some things were still slipping through the cracks.”

Though she didn’t go into specifics, Gray did say there were at least “a couple” of documented cases of the program being abused, which along with the growing cost prompted the county to add new requirements to prove indigency.

As of July 1, anyone seeking an indigent burial is required to provide a photo ID to validate their identity, as well as a recent tax return and information about their recent financial history.

According to Gray, the county is specifically requiring any employed person to produce their previous three pay stubs and at least three monthly bank statements. Gray said there is also a process for those with “zero income” due to being on disability, drawing Social Security, being an active student and several other reasons.

The original state law also prohibits property owners, either the deceased or their immediate family — a parent, legal guardian, sibling or adult-aged child — from taking advantage of the program.

Even though changes have added extra hurdles, Gray said the new system will ultimately be more accountable and ensure the program is available and funded for “those who truly need it.”

“As with any social services program, you have to prove your indigence. Whether you’re applying for SNAP [food stamps], Section 8 housing, low-income housing or whatever — you don’t just fill out an application and say, ‘yeah, I don’t have anything’ and they take your word for it,” Gray said. “You have to show that you’re in need, and that’s all we’re asking.”

However, some have been critical of the new requirements, suggesting they place “unnecessary burdens” on low-income citizens who are already dealing with loss. Gray said those concerns have not been widespread, though, adding that even with the new requirements “it’s not a very stringent process.”

Gray specifically took exception to some reports drawing parallels to Alabama’s voter ID laws by suggesting the requirement of a valid form of photo ID might disproportionately affect minorities. To that, Gray said the county doesn’t discriminate.

“I keep track of the [deceased’s] ages, gender and race, and for the last several years, it has been pretty much 50 percent Caucasian and 50 percent African-American,” Gray said. “We don’t try to push away or make things more difficult for one particular race. Everyone goes through the exact same application process.”

To make the process as easy as possible, the county has also started providing and accepting applications for the indigent burial program at three Mobile County License Commission offices in Theodore Oaks, Eight Mile and Michael Square in Mobile. They can also be picked up at Government Plaza.

However, the requirements for applying for an indigent burial weren’t the only changes in the program. The county also changed its policies on burials and cremations.

Previously, the county was paying $600 for cremations and $900 for indigent burials — allowing the family of the deceased to select which procedure is used. Since July, though, the county has moved to only perform cremations unless there is a religious objection by the deceased’s family.

“We have had some disappointment about going to the cremations. Some people may not want to do that so they’ll just back off,” Gray said. “That’s probably why the numbers have dipped, too.”

That “dip” in the number of indigent burials has been fairly significant since the changes to the program were implemented, Gray said. What was a weekly average of six or more referrals or inquiries has dropped to less than three over the past month.

Serenity Memorial Gardens. (findagrave.com)

Serenity Memorial Gardens. (findagrave.com)

Another possible factor in the reduction of indigent burials is the lack of recommendations from funeral homes. Previously any company with the means to perform end-of-life services could perform those services and be reimbursed through the county, though many only saw a profit from cremation because of the increased cost of a traditional burial.

“Some [funeral homes] were pulling out because it wasn’t economically feasible for them anymore, so we had just a handful that were wanting to do the burials and then some that wanted to do the cremations,” Gray said. “We wanted to streamline the process and get a one-stop shop.”

In an effort to streamline the process further, the county has also started contracting with one funeral home exclusively after competitive bids were sought from several funeral homes in the area. Serenity Funeral Home, Crematory and Memorial Gardens was awarded a one-year contract for the work July 13.