State helps poor pay for funerals

Maryland provides about $32,000 monthly to low-income families with expenses

November 09, 2005|By CHRISTOPHER STOLLAR

When Frank Moore died of kidney failure in February, his family was faced with a $1,703 funeral bill - money that was needed for everything from heating their homes to buying groceries.

Six days later, more than a third of that cost was covered from a little-known Maryland program that helps the poor bury their dead with dignity.

"Some people don't have enough [money]," said Shirley McKnight, Moore's sister. "In a time of bereavement, you don't need to be running around, having people say, `I'll call you back on Monday.' You don't need that."

Instead, McKnight and her two brothers got immediate help from Social Services, which provided Vaughn C. Greene Funeral Services in Baltimore with $650 to help defray the cost of cremation for Moore, 47, a truck driver from Howard County.

The McKnight-Moore family is among more than 600 families throughout Maryland that receive about $384,000 in funeral assistance each year, according to state records.

Paid out each month

Maryland gives about $32,000 every month from its general fund to 52 families who cannot afford vaults, grave digging, burial plots or other expenses.

"It's an opportunity to bury their loved ones with dignity," said Larry Pinkett, assistant director for Howard County's Family Investment Program. "[But] it's really a smaller program. ... Most people have some means in which to bury their family members."

While Howard County has helped only seven families since July 2004, other regions have seen greater demand.

In a month, six families from Baltimore received funeral assistance, followed by five from Prince George's County, four from Anne Arundel and three from Baltimore County, according to Maryland's most recent data from April. Checks are capped at $650.

Charles, Garrett, Harford, Montgomery, Somerset and Wicomico counties each helped one family.

While McKnight and her brothers work, many who receive funeral funds are poor, and the deceased must have been getting other assistance, such as medical aid, temporary cash or disability benefits, for their relatives to earn a grant.

Without the assistance, many families might face difficult choices among food, gas - and a grave.

"These families are at the point where they are really just scraping up and borrowing everywhere to provide for a dignified funeral," said Larry Hunt with the Howard County Community Action Council. "They're really spending the rent money, food money, gas and electric money. They're taking away from basic resources to have to deal with this."

Planning

By contrast, Hunt said, most moderate-income families have purchased plots, paid for vaults or plan to rely on insurance policies to cover funeral expenses.

"But for the poor families," Hunt said, "they haven't been able to do that. They've never had the resources to put that aside, so they're really at absolute ground zero."

McKnight was more fortunate than that, but the $650 helped. More important, she said, was faith in God and specifically Psalm 23, which talks about walking through the "valley of the shadow of death."

"That's what got us through," she said. "We depended on each other and the help of the Lord."

Christopher Stollar writes for the Capital News Service.

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