There are a number of things that change along with the ebb and flow of the economy, like the real estate market, governmental tax revenues and employment rates.

However, one lesser-known byproduct of a downward trend in personal wealth is the effect it can have on the number of individuals and families receiving public assistance for end-of-life services.

Though the term “public assistance” is instantly polarizing in today’s political landscape, this particular government service has been provided by Alabama counties since the 1800s — a charge placed on each county in the state code.

“Upon the decease of any person having no estate and leaving no relatives in the county with the ability or estate adequate to defray his necessary burial expenses, such necessary burial expenses are a charge upon the county in which such death shall take place,” it reads.

In short, if someone dies in a county — even if they’re just passing through — the responsibility for burying the deceased falls on the county commission if the person or their family lacks the means to pay for those services.

Like areas across the country, Mobile and Baldwin counties have both seen an increase in the number of people utilizing these programs in recent years, and with funeral costs rising and the economy still on the mend, many believe those numbers are going to continue going up.

Baldwin County Coroner Stan Vinson told Lagniappe the state of the economy often dictates the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burial requests his office receives. Over the next few years, he’s expecting a rise in those cases due to the economy and an influx of homeless persons in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

“We are seeing more and more homeless people here, and in the unfortunate event that they die, it may be difficult to find a next of kin,” Vinson said. “I expect many of those deaths to end up being unclaimed or becoming indigent burials.”

Increased costs for families, counties
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a burial in the United States is more than $7,000, and those are base-level services — the funeral home, embalming, visitation, a service, a hearse and a basic casket.

Compared to the $700 cost of similar services in 1968, today’s prices are the result of a steady increase — uninterrupted since the 1970s — that has consistently outpaced the inflation of the dollar.

While the cost of indigent services is often much cheaper, the rise in the cost of privately funded burials seems to have happened in concert with an uptick in the number of people receiving public assistance for end-of-life services.

Statistics on indigent burials performed in Mobile County since 2006.

Statistics on indigent burials performed in Mobile County since 2006.

In the past decade, Mobile County has recorded a 268 percent increase in the cost of its indigent burial program, with annual allocations jumping from $30,529 in 2006 to $113,700 in 2013. In the past two years, the cost has only dropped around a single percentage point.

Edith Gray, assistant to Mobile County’s deputy administrator, is tasked with vetting and managing those who apply for indigent burials in Mobile County. She told Lagniappe there hasn’t historically been a set budget allocation for those services in the county’s general fund because the costs often fluctuate.

“You never know. Some counties have a budget for indigent funding, but we don’t because it’s just such a moving target,” Gray said. “The number per year has kind of always fluctuated up and down, but lately it’s been rising. I’m not sure why, though it may just be because people are becoming more aware of the program.”

According to the county, there were 149 indigent burials or cremations last year, compared to just 42 a decade earlier. In previous years, the National Association of Counties has reported similar nationwide trends that hit record highs around 2011.

In Mobile County, Gray said, most recipients of indigent burial funds are elderly members of the community who don’t personally own property and have outlived most of their relatives. The vast majority are locals, though there are some exceptions — like when a Romanian citizen died while visiting the U.S. on a travel visa just a few years ago.

“He had cancer, and from what they gathered at the morgue, he had traveled here because he wanted to die in the United States,” Gray said. “In that case, the funeral home made a call to the Romanian Embassy to see if he had any next of kin listed, but after two weeks, we ended up doing indigent cremation.”

The county pays $600 for indigent cremation and $900 for an indigent burial — rates Gray says haven’t changed since the 1990s. Currently, the family of the deceased is allowed to select which procedure is used, but if no family can be reached, the county automatically uses the less costly option of cremation.

According to Gray, there are several ways the county vets the applicants for indigent burial funding, though as the state law says, the only true requirement is that the deceased and their immediate family own no property in Mobile County.

According to Gray, Mobile County defines immediate family as a parent or legal guardian, a sibling or an adult-aged child. When indigent status is applied for, those claims are verified by reviewing the deceased’s family history and local property records.

However, Gray said she also works with other agencies that may have already documented a person’s indigent status, such as the Department of Human Resources and the Social Security Administration.

“There’s people who do try to get away with it and say they don’t have property, while I’m looking at a deed,” Gray said. “Though our property searches only pertain to Mobile County, because the code just states inside the county. So unfortunately, if they happen to own a beach house in Gulf Shores, it can’t be considered with regard to indigent burial.”

Indigent burials in Baldwin County
Like population, the rate of indigent burials is higher on the western side of the bay, but Baldwin County is still required by law to provide cremation and burial services for those who qualify.

As coroner, Vinson said his office handled roughly 500 death investigations last year, but only 12 of those cases involved an unclaimed body or an indigent burial request. This year the office is on a similar pace, seeing six through May.

“In the event that we have an unclaimed body, we have to go to the court to get a court order to cremate the body,” Vinson said. “The county has a contract with a local funeral home, which will then cremate the remains. Those remains come to my office, where I have to hold them for at least 180 days.”

According to Vinson, after 180 days those remains can be disposed of, but they often are not on the chance someone eventually comes forward as a relative. Vinson said there are currently cremated remains in his office that “have been here well over 180 days.”

The Baldwin County Commission has a contract with Wolfe-Bayview Funeral Home for cremation and indigent burial services. Vinson said there is no charge to retrieve the remains of an unclaimed body.

“If someone comes forward as a relative, I offer them the cremated remains,” Vinson said. “I will release them to them.”

The county will also provide indigent cremation services to those who cannot afford the high costs associated with a traditional funeral and burial. Vinson’s office requests the Baldwin County Council on Aging qualify the family for an indigent cremation.

“Every case is different because everyone’s situation is different,” Council on Aging Office Manager Beverly Johnson said. “The county will look to see what kind of assets the person’s immediate family has before making the determination.”

Baldwin County defines immediate family similarly to Mobile, including a decedent’s mother, father, sibling or adult-aged child. If any of those relatives owns property in the county, the deceased may not qualify as indigent. In addition, Johnson said people who pass away in nursing homes will often have trusts built up that can cover the cost of a cremation.

As was the case in Mobile County, burials were proving far more costly than cremations, but the more pressing issue in Baldwin is space. In 2014, Baldwin County began only offering indigent cremations as the county cemetery in Foley began reaching capacity — though some religious exceptions are still made.

According to Johnson, the Council on Aging typically sees roughly eight indigent cremation requests per year, but she said “there does seem to be more coming in this year.” In just the last week, the the council has received three.

The Baldwin coroner’s office is responsible for determining the cause and manner of death of a person who dies and is not under medical care. All traumatic deaths such as murder, suicide, accidental, motor vehicle and drowning are required by law to be reported to the coroner.

While it hasn’t happened recently, Vinson said a body that is both unclaimed and unidentified would not be cremated, but instead buried in one of the county’s lots in Foley or stored in its refrigeration unit.

“Once you cremate a body, everything that could identify the person is gone,” Vinson said. “In the case of an unidentified body, we want to make sure that if one day a family member does pop up and ask to see the body, we can do that for them.”

Increased costs for funeral homes
While counties are required to handle the burial of any person deemed indigent, the privately owned funeral homes facilitating those services are not. According to Gray, it isn’t hard to find businesses that will provide cremations, but there are still “not many” that will take on the cost of a traditional burial.

Those that do have historically owned and operated their own cemetery, like Serenity Funeral Home, Crematory and Memorial Gardens. Gray said Radney Funeral Home has also performed burials in the past, though she added they recently got out of the program because it was no longer “cost effective.”

Edward J. “Buddy” Noojin, president of SLG Group Inc., parent company of Serenity Funeral Home, said even with basic preparations, burial expenses often exceed the $900 a funeral home would receive from the county. According to Noojin, indigent burials at Serenity include a gravesite, a vault and a minimal casket, but do not include any type of service.

With 400 acres of cemetery space and the facilities to provide burial and cremation services, Serenity is in a better position than most to make providing indigent services more cost effective. However, even with reduced preparations and a higher volume, Noojin said the company often loses money on indigent burials.

“Of my gravesites, the least expensive is around $1,150. The state also requires me to pay into a perpetual care fund at around $150 for that same site,” Noojin said. “So, we would be picking up the deceased, preparing for the burial, providing a casket, providing a vault, providing a grave space, paying the state $150 and doing all the work for $900.”

Despite the concerns with cost, Noojin said Serenity doesn’t have plans to stop accepting indigent burials, adding the company has “a tendency to do the right thing, sometimes to our detriment.”

“The founder of our organization left an edict in his trust, and one of the only things he asked us to do was to guarantee the people of Mobile County would have quality burial space,” he said. “Until somebody way above my pay grade says stop, I’m going to continue to do that.”

Just recently, though, Mobile County requested proposals from several area funeral homes — including Serenity — to get a better idea of what all interested parties might charge for indigent cremations, burials or a combination of both. Though he wouldn’t comment on the specifics of his bid, Noojin said a streamlined bidding process could help the program run more smoothly for business owners and the county.

According to Gray, Mobile County has used Serenity, Memorial Funeral Home and Azalea City Funeral Home and Crematory most frequently. However, she said others like Smalls Mortuary and Reese’s Funeral Home will occasionally accept some indigent burials on a “case-by-case basis.”

Noojin said it would be beneficial for a funeral home to take on both types of services so any financial loss from burials could be offset by gains from cremations, which are much cheaper to perform. He also said an increase in volume could make the entire program more cost effective for whatever funeral home ends up handling indigent services for Mobile County.

“I wish every church and every family could take care of their own, but the government has to step in when they can’t,” Noojin said. “I wish I could take them all for nothing, but if the county is going to do this, everyone in this business needs to stand up or let us that are responsible bidders do it.”

However, Mobile County Public Affairs Director Nancy Johnson said not everyone’s business model is the same as Noojin’s, adding part of reason the county recently issued an RFP was “to get a lay of the land” and see what “the various companies are willing and able to do.”

“Some of the companies will take some of the business and then not take others,” Johnson said. “Meanwhile, we at the county have our own goals and objectives with this, which is to comply with the law and then to go a little beyond that by offering a dignified service for the indigent while still being good stewards of the tax dollar.”

Though there’s been no official change, Noojin also said Serenity has proposed the county adopt a “more stringent” policy on providing the extra funding for burials — one that would require a family to have a religious objection to cremation.

Though some denominations of Christianity oppose cremation, those that follow the Jewish faith as well as Muslims and Buddhists have edicts against the practice. Noojin said it’s fine to recognize those religious requirements, but covering the extra cost for the sake of preference seems unnecessary.

“If you’re not going to pay for it, you really kind of have to have at least some sort of criteria that you’re willing to set for the public interest,” Noojin said. “The responsible party should be able to make the decision, and in this case, that’s the county.”

Like Gray, Noojin said he has seen people who are appearing to take advantage of the system, though he still thinks the service is something that’s needed.

“If some of those people would have got together and raised a few dollars, they could have done this on their own,” Noojin said. “But, in so many cases, the only family that’s left is an elderly parent who has nothing.”