When poor die, loved ones beg for burial costs

September 12, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

Before Bertha Dunton was buried last month, her family and close friends were escorted into a small conference room at the William C. Brown Community Funeral Home in the 1200 block of W. North Ave.

With the simple wooden casket downstairs and mourners waiting on the sidewalk for nearly an hour, Ms. Dunton's only child, Henry, and her two closest friends debated with officials of the funeral home and cemetery over funeral and burial contracts laden with itemized costs.

It was just what Ms. Dunton's friends and relatives had hoped to avoid.

They had spent almost one week knocking on doors begging for donations and borrowing from friends to help bury the 53-year-old unemployed cook who died penniless and without insurance.

It is a scene that is played out somewhere in Baltimore nearly every day, and the impact is hardest felt in low-income neighborhoods. Every time someone dies in these neighborhoods, it touches off a grim ritual as friends and families suddenly face funeral expenses that range from $2,000 for a no-frills service to as much as $10,000.

"I am stressed out. Mentally stressed," said Joan Dixon, Bertha's close friend, who helped raise $745 in cash donations for the funeral, which cost about $2,000. "She did work and did pay taxes, and we really have been struggling since last Friday with no money to get her buried."

With cuts in social services budgets and cuts in Social Security and other death benefits, there is little public funding to help needy families with burial costs.

Before their loved ones are buried, many of the desperate low-income families are asked to make monthly payments to funeral homes and to issue postdated checks to cover the bills.

At times, bodies lie unclaimed at the State Medical Examiner's office and are turned over to the University of Maryland's anatomy board because the family cannot afford funeral

expenses, said Donald Wright, deputy chief medical examiner. Between January and June, 79 bodies were unclaimed and donated to science, Dr. Wright said.

Because Ms. Dunton was divorced and not on public assistance in Baltimore, she was not eligible for federal, state or city aid toward her funeral expenses, said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Social Services.

Welfare recipients, the disabled and children in foster care are eligible for a $650 grant toward funeral expenses -- a grant that used to be $820 before budget cuts in 1993, Ms. Fitzsimmons said. Last year, the department issued about 59 grants a month, she said.

The state Department of Human Resources has a burial assistance program that costs taxpayers about $850,000 annually for grants to needy Maryland residents for funeral expenses, said spokeswoman Helen Szablya. Crime victims can receive burial assistance up to $2,000 each from the state Criminal Injuries Compensation Program.

"People on limited income need assistance with life's emergencies," Ms. Fitzsimmons said. "And death is one of life's emergencies."

Erich March, president of the State Board of Morticians and vice president and part owner of the March Funeral Home Inc., said he is acutely aware of how often indigent and working poor families have trouble paying funeral expenses.

"It's a symptom of society," Mr. March said. "There are just too many people that fall into a certain income level for whom there are no real basic supports. Social service deals with some circumstances, but a lot of people don't fit the criteria, and then when they die, they are left out in the cold, so to speak."

Mr. March, 42, said his business conducts about 2,400 funerals annually and about 15 percent -- or 360 -- are donated to needy families who seek his help in burying their loved ones.

"If I'm aware of certain circumstances, like obviously if the family doesn't have money to work with, we do it for free. Somebody has to. These are people . . . they are not nothing. They are decent human beings."

Donald Todd, director of the community services division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said he also is asked to help pay funeral costs by grieving families.

Mr. Todd, who oversees the bereavement center that counsels the families of homicide victims, said that many clients seek help in paying funeral expenses.

"It is safe to say 50 percent of all people need compensation," Mr. Todd said. "You have to look at what you are dealing with -- most people murdered are between the ages of 15 and 34, and their work history is nonexistent. They don't buy life insurance. We try to get donations from churches and community groups. We've even had employers send us money."

For Ms. Dunton's family, there was no alternative but to scrape together every cent they could for her funeral, which did not include a service at the funeral home because they couldn't afford to rent the private room.

Their memory of her as a friendly woman who loved children and made a delicious spaghetti dinner drove them to give her a decent burial on a peaceful hill in the Arbutus Memorial Park cemetery.

"She lived a good life," Ms. Dixon said. "She loved kids. Every child that she came in contact with loved her. Everybody that knew her loved her -- that's the way it was. If you knew her, you liked her."

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