La. coroners tasked with unclaimed bodies

On an unseasonably cold and gray April morning, on a mound of green grass and white clover beneath the outstretched branches of an oak, the ashes of three Baton Rouge residents were scattered upon the earth.

“As we return to the earth and sea from whence we came, divine creator of all in heaven and on Earth, we bring before you these last earthly remains, returned to you to do with as you will and to set free for all eternity,” East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark said in prayer before the ashes were spread at the city’s historic Magnolia Cemetery on Florida Boulevard.

The three were among 14 unclaimed bodies entrusted to the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office for disposition so far this year, Clark said. The Coroner’s Office had 77 such cases in 2012.

Some were “true paupers” in the sense that neither they nor their next of kin could afford the cost of burial or cremation, Clark said. Others simply went unclaimed by relatives and were left to the Coroner’s Office for disposition in accordance with state law.

No statewide figures are available for how often bodies are left unclaimed at coroners’ offices. And coroners for some jurisdictions declined to discuss the subject, saying they feared calling attention to the issue might lead to more bodies being left unclaimed to be disposed of at taxpayer expense.

Other coroners said most families who do not claim the bodies of relatives would like to do so but can’t afford burials or cremations.

Determining who has the means to pay has become enough of a problem that the executive director for the Louisiana Forensic Institute, which provides training and legislative input for coroners, is drafting legislation to make it easier for coroners to identify true paupers.

The Institute’s executive director, William “Chuck” Credo III, who also serves as an attorney for the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office, wants to make it possible for coroners to recoup disposal costs from family members who can pay for a funeral but choose not to claim a relative’s body.

He said he hopes to have his proposal ready for next year’s legislative session.

State law does not require a dead person’s family to claim the body for burial or to reimburse the coroner’s costs of disposing of the deceased. However, if the deceased leaves behind any assets, the coroner can seek reimbursement from the estate or anyone who receives assets from it.

The process historically has been handled through a “public administrator,” an attorney appointed by the governor to recoup debts owed to the government, Credo said. However, public administrators are few and far between even though they are statutorily mandated for any parish with a population of 50,000 or more, he said.

Credo said he’s aware of only two public administrators — in Orleans and St. Tammany parishes. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office did not respond to an inquiry about the appointment of public administrators.

Without public administrators, coroners are ill-equipped to proceed against an estate for reimbursement, Credo said. Instead, coroners offices must pick up the tab or face costly legal fees for pursuing reimbursement on their own, he said.

Mark Bone, chief investigator for the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office, estimated that as many as half of the parish’s 104 pauper cremations performed in 2012 at a total cost of $33,000 were unclaimed-person cases because a next of kin either could not be located or, for whatever reason, did not claim the body.

“I spend a lot of my time trying to track down family and get a final disposition,” Bone said. “A lot of them choose not to answer my certified letters. Or the husband or wife will say they would rather put food on the table.”

State law requires coroners to first offer unclaimed bodies to medical schools for research and education purposes. However, coroners often do not know, within the tight 36-hour deadline from death that a medical donation requires, whether a body is truly unclaimed, Bone said.

Locating next of kin can be difficult.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office went to great lengths to locate relatives of one of the three paupers whose ashes were spread on April 5, Clark said.

The man, who was 38 when he died Dec. 19, was living in a group home in Baton Rouge due to chronic physical health issues and mental disabilities, Clark said. He was not originally from the city and had no relatives in the area.

“It turns out, he was from New Orleans and had been in a group home there before Hurricane Katrina,” Clark said.

After the storm, the man was moved from one group home to another across several cities before ending up in Baton Rouge, Clark said. The man’s family also was scattered, with no knowledge of his whereabouts.

Clark’s office eventually found the family through Facebook, and they signed away their rights to claim the body.

“But at least they were finally able to know where their loved one is,” Clark said. “He had really been on a journey since they last saw him.”

Phone calls to families can elicit emotions ranging from sorrow for lacking the money for burial expenses to anger at the dead person and unwillingness to claim a relative even in death, Clark said.

Bone said the hardest calls are to those who simply cannot raise the money for a burial.

“A lot of times, family members will say they’re trying to get together some money, and in good faith, we’ll hold the bodies for months,” Bone said. “But at some point we have to dispose of the remains because it becomes a public health issue.”

Notifying the family that the time has come is one of the hardest parts of the job, he said.

“You have the spouse apologizing profusely, saying they can’t take care of their family. They just don’t have the money,” Bone said. “That’s a daily phone call that I have to make, and you just really feel for those families.”

Funeral costs

Funeral costs vary by funeral home and location, but the average cost for an in-ground burial service is about $7,500 to $8,000, said Nicole Charlet Wilcher, president of the Louisiana Funeral Directors Association and owner of Charlet Funeral Homes in Zachary and Clinton.

“What many people don’t realize is that, in Louisiana, there are no funds for pauper burials,” Wilcher said. “Someone has to either come up with the money or end up abandoning them.”

Some states provide pauper burials through Medicaid or general revenue funding. In Oregon, for example, the state’s Indigent Burial Fund takes $6 of every $20 death certificate fee to help reimburse funeral providers up to $450 per cremation.

In Louisiana, however, those costs are shouldered by coroners’ offices, which are funded through their respective parish governments and self-generated revenues.

Funeral homes try to work with families as much as possible, scaling back services to fit a budget, Wilcher said. They, like coroners, will try to allow families time to gather money, but there are limits to how long a funeral home can wait.

Churches and religious groups also help out where they can.

Last year, the Lafayette Catholic Service Centers partnered with the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Lafayette Parish Coroner’s Office and Martin & Castille Funeral Home to provide a burial service for 93 unclaimed paupers.

Catholic Charities has helped cover funeral expenses in certain cases, said Carol Spruell, communications director for the Baton Rouge agency. But funds for that are extremely limited, she said. No grant programs exist for that purpose, Spruell said, and service organizations depend on private donations to provide help.

Pauper status

While state law allows coroners to pursue reimbursement against the estate of any non-pauper, it does not define who qualifies as a pauper, and coroners have no effective way to determine who has the funds to pay for a burial or cremation. A 1908 statute says parishes may pay the burial expenses for any person included on a “parochial list of paupers,” but Credo said many parishes no longer maintain such a list.

“It used to be that if a person was on that list, he was entitled to a pauper burial,” Credo said. “Life’s not that simple now. Populations have grown, and procedures have not kept up.”

Credo’s proposed legislation would define who qualifies as a pauper based on criteria such as a person’s marital status, family size, income, assets and expenses.

Current law is silent as to whether other family members with independent means should incur the cost of a relative’s burial or cremation. Credo is considering to what extent such relatives should help shoulder the burden “for even ‘unloved’ ones” who would otherwise go unclaimed.

“If a family knows they will have to pay one way or the other, and if we had an effective public administrator system, then maybe they would claim their relative and give them a decent burial,” Credo said. “In a time of receding budgets and growing populations, we have to look at what’s fair.”

Clark said coroners take care of a lot of people who have no money whatsoever.

“Babies left abandoned at hospitals after miscarriage, true paupers, people who have no one and are alone in the world, the people the law was set up for us to take care of,” Clark said. “But like anything else, I guess you will always have people who try to abuse the system.”

Bone said the issue is complicated.

“If an 85-year-old woman has $1,000 in a bank account and lives paycheck-to-paycheck on a fixed Social Security income, should she have to incur the cost or be able to buy her medications that month?” Bones asked. “It’s not up to me to force that issue on her.”