Families that turn over the bodies of loved ones to the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner for a pauper’s cremation will have to pay if they want the ashes returned.
Coroner Dr. Beau Clark said his office will begin enforcing state laws that kick in when family members agree to a pauper’s burial, which means they sign over the rights of the body to the state because they cannot afford or refuse to pay funeral costs, Clark said.
Once the agreement is signed, the Coroner’s Office can cremate the body or donate it to science, Clark said.
Burials rarely take place, he said, because they are too costly.
If the Coroner’s Office chooses to cremate a body, “there’s a cost that goes with that,” Clark said.
Clark said it costs the city-parish $390 to cremate a body — $330 for cremation and another $60 for a body bag.
“That’s 300 something bucks of taxpayer money,” Clark said.
State law says that after the Coroner’s Office cremates or buries a body, the person overseeing the deceased person’s succession must “provide for the payment of the burial expenses out of the assets of the decedent,” assuming the decedent had “known assets” to pay for burial costs.
The law applies to cremations as well as burials, Clark said.
Clark said while he was making his transition into office, he and his staff discovered that ashes were being returned to family members for free. Now, Clark said, the Coroner’s Office will try to recoup the money spent performing cremations.
“We have had a few circumstances where the family has come back and inquired if they (their loved ones) have been cremated,” Clark said.
If the Coroner’s Office performs a cremation, the office holds onto the ashes for 60 days, Clark said.
If the ashes go unclaimed, they are spread at a Baton Rouge area cemetery, Clark said. Family members are welcome to attend that spreading, he said.
Clark said he decided to begin enforcing the law after funeral homes approached him with a concern that people were choosing what they thought was a free cremation over paying a funeral home when families could afford funeral or cremation costs.
“Somewhere along the way, people were researching the law and maybe using it to their advantage,” Clark said.
Clark said people started coming to his office under the assumption that it serves as a crematorium. While the office occasionally performs cremations, it doesn’t want it to be a regular service, Clark said.
“We by no means want to be in the cremation business,” Clark said. “That is what funeral homes and funeral directors do.”
Dr. Shannon Cooper, the coroner for eight years before Clark was elected in 2011, acknowledged the law existed during his tenure but said he did not remember “exactly how we enforced it.”
“As I recall, we tried to enforce it at one point,” he said.
Don Moreau, Cooper’s former chief of operations, said Cooper’s administration decided it would be too costly to pursue people for the costs if they had said they could not pay.
“I personally felt it would not be cost-effective to pursue them,” Moreau said.
Cooper said his office had no way of knowing if people who claimed they could not pay either did not have the funds or simply decided they did not want to pay the costs. Cooper said the city-parish does incur costs when the Coroner’s Office cremates a body.
“If some of that cost can be recouped, then it’s less expense to the Coroner’s Office,” he said.
However, he said his office did not withhold ashes if the family could not or would not pay.
“It doesn’t seem like very fertile territory to raise money and keep the ashes of their loved ones if they can’t afford it,” Cooper said.
Clark said he’s choosing to enforce the law because the parish has to pay for the costs when his office cremates a body.
“The parish is paying for it. It’s not a free service,” he said. “I’m trying to be a good steward of your tax dollars.”
East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Mary Roper said the decision to pursue the fees is up to the Coroner’s Office and not the city-parish.
“They’re certainly authorized to do it under the law,” Roper said. “It is just a policy decision as to whether they want to do it or not.”