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Indigent burials are putting a strain on county budgets across Minnesota

Minnesota counties are required to cover arrangements for those who expire without enough assets to pay for the costs associated with death. And many of those counties are seeing those expenses rise substantially.

The grave marker for Henry Hanson in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
The grave marker for Henry Hanson in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul

In a tucked-away spot off of Stinson Parkway in St. Anthony lay the remains of Henry Hanson, Martha Maria Hibbard and Carl McInnis, all long dead.

Their bodies are buried in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery. It’s what used to be called a potter’s field, or pauper’s cemetery — a place designated for the free burial of people who didn’t have the means to pay for something more opulent. Hundreds of people are buried there, mostly in unmarked graves.

Pauper’s cemeteries aren’t really a thing anymore, but plenty of people still expire without the means to pay for the costs associated with death, which have risen to levels lots of families can’t afford — typically at least a thousand dollars, and easily more than ten times that.

Minnesota statutes makes counties responsible for covering the arrangements when someone dies without enough money or assets to cover the costs. And some Minnesota counties are seeing those expenses rise substantially.

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Higher costs, fewer resources

Indigent burials have been the purview of Minnesota’s counties since the state’s territorial days, with statutes requiring them to pay for a “decent” burial in cases where neither the deceased nor family members had the means to do so.

These days, if neither a dead person nor their spouse has sufficient assets, the county of residence pays for arrangements in accordance with any discernible religious beliefs or family wishes.

Minnesota counties have interpreted the statute in different ways, with varying rules about what gets paid for and how much it can cost. But lots of them have one thing in common: they’re doling out more and more money for indigent burials, as more people are dying without the means to cover their final expenses.

The grave stone for Carl McGinnis in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
The grave stone for Carl McInnis in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
For a decade, Aitkin County, in north-central Minnesota, saw steady costs of around $20,000 per year for county burials — the term generally used for arrangements paid for by the county — whether the person is cremated or buried, interred or not. But in the last three years, however, costs have gone up to around $35,000 per year.

Sometimes, the application for county burial is for a homeless person, who dies without anything in the bank. Other times, it’s a young person whose untimely death, and the expenses that come with it, are unexpected. Or the death isn’t a surprise at all, but any money that could be used to pay for a funeral have gone to living expenses and medical care.

“I would say primarily, the issue is assets. It’s really, people don’t have assets like they used to have,” said Jessi Goble, financial assistance supervisor at Aitkin County.

It’s not just Aitkin County. A Federal Reserve study found 40 percent of U.S. adults said they couldn’t easily cover a $400 unplanned expense. And as wages have stagnated, the cost of funerals and associated expenses have risen faster than the prices of most goods in the U.S. in recent decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

John Street, income maintenance supervisor for Polk County, said he also sees fewer people with the sort of modest life insurance policies that cover such expenses. “I don’t see that coming across my desk anymore,” he said.

When people apply for burial assistance in Aitkin County, the county evaluates the deceased’s checking, savings, life insurance policies, vehicles, land, stocks, bonds and any other assets. But other circumstances also factor in. If there’s a surviving spouse or children and paying for a burial would cause a housing crisis, the county will try to step in, Goble said. “A homeless family is much more expensive than a one-time burial.”

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What they’ll cover depends on what happens with the body. Immediate cremation with no service maxes out at $1,650. Burials with a minimal casket and a service run up to $3,100. Then there are the costs of a cemetery plot, for opening and closing the grave and sometimes medical examiner and body transportation fees.

Between those fluctuating costs and the unpredictable number of deaths the county handles each year, it’s tough to budget, Goble said.

Death as a budget buster

Northern Minnesota’s St. Louis County has gone over budget for indigent burials by between $100,000 and $200,000 for the last couple years, said Dusty Letica, economic services and supports division manager for the county, which is the state’s largest by area.

St. Louis County’s poverty rate is 14.5 percent — more than a third higher than the state average of 9.5 percent — and it now pays to bury an average of about 20 people per month. In 2018, its costs for indigent burials were $450,000, more than St. Paul’s Ramsey County, despite Ramsey having nearly three times the population.

This year, St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, had already helped to bury about 90 people by the end of May, which means it’s on track to meet or exceed last year’s costs, Letica said.

The grave marker for Martha Maria Hibbard in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
The grave marker for Martha Maria Hibbard in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
The funds to cover indigent burials come from county levy dollars, with no reimbursement from the state or federal government. That means when costs run over, the county has to find money from elsewhere in the budget to cover the expense. “It does cause a strain of trying to find resources,” he said. The county is currently reviewing its policy on such burials.

In west central Minnesota, Kandiyohi County saw its expenses double in the three years between 2015 and 2018, from $66,000 to $112,000. Jennie Lippert, the county’s health and human services director, attributes the rise in costs to more need. “Clearly, we’re having a lot of individuals who aren’t planning or preparing or having the financial means to afford the cost of burial,” she said. But there are other nuances, too, like more people needing larger caskets, which cost more.

For other counties, the need to follow religious customs, such as the traditional washing of the body for people of the Muslim faith, can add costs, said Peter Sedgeman, the director of social services in Polk County. It too has seen the average number of burials it covers each year double over the last decade.

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Hennepin County, the state’s largest county by population, has also seen a steady increase in costs, from about $1.1 million just a few years ago to $1.6 million last year.

Keeping costs down

Families often don’t know county funds might be available to help with burial costs until a funeral director refers them.

And though the costs of funerals have generally increased in recent years, counties tend to negotiate with local funeral homes to keep prices for county burials more manageable. “I don’t think they even break even on what we pay them just for the equipment and burial items and that type of thing,” said Cathy Skogen, the manager for the income and health care assistance division at the Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, which serves Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties.

Jerry Thompson, of Sorensen-Root-Thompson Funeral Home, which operates in Aitkin and McGregor, said it sometimes takes a little creativity to accommodate the county’s budget while giving families what they want, but they try to make it work. “We’re a small community, and the thing is, it could be your neighbor, your friend, your acquaintance that all of a sudden needs that help,” Thompson said.

A grave marker in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
A grave marker in the old St. Anthony Township Cemetery.