Taxpayers in Oklahoma County paid $56,410 for the burial or cremation of 175 individuals during fiscal year 2009-10.
At the time of their death in the county, these people were homeless, destitute or from families with absolutely no means of paying for a burial, said Christi Jernigan, director of the Oklahoma County Social Services.
Out of ad valorem taxes, Oklahoma County pays a flat rate for burials of $700 that is split between the funeral home and the cemetery. With cremations, they pay $315 for adults and $250 for children. The majority are cremations.
Jernigan said they provide burials under circumstances such as the death of some children or if there is a verifiable religious objection to cremation.
Of those 175 individuals, 28 came to the county as "unclaimed." Half of those 28 were babies and half were those who were destitute or homeless. The babies may have been stillborn to a young mother with no family support and little understanding of the importance of prenatal care.
The state medical examiner's office notifies the county about the homeless or others with no family, Jernigan said. This follows an extensive search by the medical examiner's office and law enforcement for family members.
The records of that person are kept permanently by the county.
Jernigan said the cemetery provides the plot for indigent burials. The county pays to open and close the graves.
Urns of cremated remains can be kept by a funeral home for a long period of time. If the remains are not claimed, urns are buried in a county cemetery plot, said Richard L. Dugger II of Perry, a member and former president of the Oklahoma Funeral Board.
On average there are about 1,100 people daily in the shelters and on the streets in the Oklahoma City area. Plus there are the "couch homeless," those who go from one place to another. That number may be about 7,700 in the metro area, said Dan Straughan, executive director of The Homeless Alliance.
Who helps pay?
Jernigan said the county provides funding for people who die in Oklahoma County because of an Oklahoma law under "Sickness or death of poor stranger."
It states, " ... if any person shall die within any county, who shall not have money or means necessary to defray his funeral expenses, it shall be the duty of the overseers of the poor of such county to employ some person to provide for and superintend the burial of such deceased person."
This law says that public cemeteries also shall provide the service of opening and closing the grave for the purpose of interring the remains of the poor or indigent person. It also mentions that the county pays the cost for opening and closing of the grave. However, it also reads that in this case, "public cemeteries" means cemeteries located in any county with a population of 300,000 or more, which sell burial plots to the general public and which are exempt from taxation under Oklahoma laws. In Oklahoma, that's Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.
Dugger said in most of the state, the funeral director in an area often absorbs the cost. The average basic cost for that is about $3,000 for burial, he said. Sometimes a county will have indigent burial plots available at a public county cemetery.
"We have worked with legislators the past couple of years trying to introduce an indigent fund to help offset these costs," Dugger said.
'This was a blessing'
The majority of those who come to Oklahoma County Social Services are family members who have no money for a burial.
John Marrow, 57, of Oklahoma City, died Monday after a series of heart-related illnesses. He was living with someone and had no finances for funeral expenses.
His younger sister, Deborah Ross, of Newalla, and a surviving brother have been battling illnesses and use most their resources to pay medical-related costs. So, after she went to a crematorium, they sent the paperwork to county social services.
Ross met with Victoria Nubine, the Oklahoma County Social Services eligibility supervisor, and the costs of cremation were approved.
Ross said her brother will be cremated and his ashes will be spread on some private land where he was allowed to go camping.
"This was a blessing," Ross said, "because we were fretting how we would pay. We had no way."
Nubine said many people have walked into her office not only grieving for a loved one, but at a loss for providing burial.
"They'll sit right there and they'll just cry and it's heart-wrenching," she said, pointing to her desk. "You're just thankful that we do have this program to help them."