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Indigent burials are putting a strain on county budgets across Minnesota

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by ian wade on 06/21/2019 - 12:10 pm.

    Ridiculous. Cremate and either pass the ashes to any remaining family member or scatter.

  2. Submitted by Robert Lilly on 06/21/2019 - 12:33 pm.

    IMO The law should be as cold as death is inevitable. If there is no private assets to pay for funeral expenses, the body should be donated to science or some other low cost option. I don’t see why we should have to pay to satisfy someones superstitions. Let me guess, funeral home / cemetery operators got these laws passed?

    • Submitted by Michael Morris on 06/21/2019 - 11:44 pm.

      Though I see your cynicism towards funeral homes and cemeteries, you are simply running on emotion, assumption, and lack of knowledge. I’ve worked in this industry as a cemetery manager for 20 years. I assure you, funeral homes and cemeteries lose money on county assisted burials. So why would they want to create or support a piece of legislation where they lose money? In fact, some funeral homes and cemeteries refuse to accept county burial cases, exactly for that reason. No. This legislation was certainly created and supported by the liberal Minnesota government establishment. I fully favor government safety nets for those truly in need. But this county burial stuff simply allows for cases where families have the money, but just as soon let the tax payers pay for mom’s funeral. Shame on the MN legislature for not tightening up the rules.

  3. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/21/2019 - 12:43 pm.

    “I would say primarily, the issue is assets. It’s really, people don’t have assets like they used to have,”

    Yup, we have a health care system that’s designed to suck every last dollar from a dying person’s estate. So yeah, if you’re unlucky enough to end up in the system at the end of your life there aren’t any assets left. Couple that with the demise of Pensions and the rise of 401k type retirement plans and you got a perfect storm of people dying with nothing.

    This is only the beginning, as baby boomers, the ones who had pensions and were lucky enough to live in a time of rising wages, die off and the next generations, the ones without pensions, the ones living pay check to pay check, the ones living in the gig economy, start dying off these budgets are really going to be stretched.

  4. Submitted by lisa miller on 06/21/2019 - 12:59 pm.

    In order to meet the highest number of people, perhaps have the state or counties limit payment only to transporting the body and cremation. The ashes can then be given to the family and if no family, have the ashes buried in donated cemetery space. Some states are looking into ways to keep costs down, not only for those without funds, but also for families in general. Certainly we want to recognize someone’s passing and their time on earth, but it makes little sense to drain budgets for burials vs other needs.

  5. Submitted by Rosalie O'Brien on 06/21/2019 - 06:54 pm.

    I agree with all of these pragmatically-oriented comments. I wonder if there’s any way to address whatever reasons folks might have to want burial rather than cremation, even if they can’t afford to pay for it. Are the reasons always religious, or quasi-religious? Since the ultimate result can be described as indistinguishable, is there a way to help people to understand that cremation is the noble alternative if public funds are involved? Is there some very low-cost way to honor a “decision” for cremation, or recognize the public benefit accruing from the use of that process for the deceased?

  6. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 06/21/2019 - 07:08 pm.

    This is a crisis? This is even a news story? Just how big is the Hennepin County budget? (hint: It is over $2B.) And they are complaining about roughly $1M for indigent burial (with all sorts of options to lower that cost?

    Give me a break! This is just setting the table to go to the Legislature–hands out–for ‘relief’.

  7. Submitted by Kamille Cheese on 06/21/2019 - 09:26 pm.

    I feel sad for those who can’t take care of death costs for themselves or family members. However, if there’s funds available from the county for this, isn’t what can be offered sufficient, despite beliefs or customs, etc.? In my opinion, yes. Respect doesn’t mean a lot of dollars, and I would hope anyone accepting the help from the county would understand this. Not meaning any offense, if you can’t afford your own choices, you can’t expect to get them and send the bills to someone else.

  8. Submitted by Michael Morris on 06/21/2019 - 11:27 pm.

    I’ve worked as a cemetery manager in Hennepin County for 20 years. Here’s part of the problem. There are two segments of people that apply for county burial assistance. Those that are truly indigent and without money, and those that (I won’t say “game” because they’re not gaming the system) use the system legally because the system lets them. For those who are truly indigent, ok. Some publicly supported entity needs to come in an pick up the tab. But then there are those who, yes the deceased or the spouse of the deceased doesn’t have money on paper. But their children and/or other family members do. The problem is that the county doesn’t means-test the children or other close family members. I’d say that in 90% of the burial assistance cases I see, on paper they show that the parents have no money. But the kids have money and should be paying for their parents’ funerals. Or at least kicking in more. How can it be that on paper the parents have no money, but the children and other relatives show up to the funeral in nice cars, live at nice addresses, appear to have jobs and money? How can it be that the parents die, get county assistance, and the children put up an $6 , $8 or $10,000 monument. So therein lies the problem. If the county would means-test the children, and base their awards on THEIR assets as well, the tax payers would be stuck with a much lower bill. I’ve never understood why the county will not means-test the family. It’s just another government bureaucratic give-away.

  9. Submitted by Alan Straka on 06/22/2019 - 11:06 am.

    We are supposed to have separation of church and state and the public should not be paying for religious practices. Only the bare minimum should be provided. If there are religious requirements the religious organization should pick up the tab.

  10. Submitted by Arthur F Meincke on 06/22/2019 - 12:31 pm.

    Undertakers are too expensive these days. They aren’t there to help you, they want your $$$$…they are business merchants and greedy at that! Contract cremation is the best for county governments.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/23/2019 - 07:04 pm.

      Wouldn’t most cremations be done by undertakers?

      Are crematory operators non-profit altruists? The Cremation Society of Minnesota is, despite its name, a for profit venture.

  11. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 06/22/2019 - 10:00 pm.

    As someone who does not see the point in burying people (it’s a waste of land), I think the response to this should be simple: cremation. There are other ways beyond a grave site that people can mourn/say goodbye to their loved ones. The state can and should absolutely cover this cost for those who are truly without means, however the only option should be cremation.

    • Submitted by Carol Ashley on 06/23/2019 - 07:32 am.

      Even better than cremation would be composting. Less carbon emissions. I think it’s the state of Washington that is now doing this. I personally think we need to change attitudes about burial. If people can’t remember me without a grave site, that is sadder than the county paying for burials. And I see everything as a cycle of life and death. Animals eat and are eaten. When they die, the vultures get them and then the soil microorganisms take over and the animal creates food for other vegetation and creatures through this process. We are the selfish ones that take land for burial in caskets that don’t disintegrate easily. We should give back one more time when we die.

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