Sedgwick Co. sees increase in number of indigent burials

When someone dies and authorities can't locate next of kin, or relatives can't or won't pay for funeral expenses, taxpayers foot the bill.

In Sedgwick County, the number of so-called "indigent burials" is on the rise. Cases rose from seven in 2009 to 19 last year, and officials think the county will handle 20 unclaimed bodies this year.

County leaders in other parts of the state have started using cremation in these cases because the cost is less.

The state last year stopped giving a $550 burial benefit for clients of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

"There was a benefit that people managing the affairs of the decedent could have access to," said Timothy Rohrig, director of the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center. "As part of the state addressing the budget, they did not give money to SRS to fund that anymore."

County commissioners across the state have feared that because there's no longer money available to help families bury loved ones, counties might become responsible for more people's burials.

Commissioners in Clay County, for example, voted last week to start cremating all people considered indigent.

Last July, Harvey County commissioners approved an agreement to pay funeral homes $550 for cremation services for indigent decedents, the Clay County Dispatch reported.

Riley County is also cremating indigents but including a grave site as part of what it pays for indigent funerals, the Dispatch reported.

In Sedgwick County, the policy still is that if officials can't locate a relative, an indigent decedent is buried. If family members are reached, but the family members either don't want to or can't claim the body, medical investigators from the forensic center advise them their relative will be cremated.

The county's budget for indigent burials or cremations this year is $30,000.

Commissioner Jim Skelton said it might be worth looking into cremating the bodies of people considered indigent if the cost becomes prohibitive for the county.

Commissioner Dave Unruh agreed, especially if the cost exceeds the budget because of the increase in cases.

The county's four medical investigators and supervisor work hard to find relatives of people who die and whose bodies are unclaimed, Rohrig said.

"If we can't contact anyone, then we will facilitate the proper burial of that body," Rohrig said.

"There are some cases where after our investigators do their investigation, the family does not want to claim the body. We tell them, 'We can't force you take the remains, but if you do not take those remains, the method of disposition will be cremation.' "

Rohrig said sometimes families say they don't have "enough money to put food on the table" let alone pay for the funeral of a long-lost uncle.

The county typically handles the remains of about 10 indigent people a year.

In 2005 and 2006, it handled nine. In 2007, that number jumped to 12 and in 2008, to 13. In 2009, it dipped to seven but rose to 19 last year.

The county contracts with a funeral home; cremations cost $700 and burials range from $1,300 to $1,800.

About a third to half of people determined to be indigent are cremated, Rohrig said.

So far this year, the county has had nine indigent death cases. There have been four burials and two cremations. Medical examiners still are working on three cases.

Indigent cases are difficult on staff. The idea that someone dies and no one claims his or her body is sad.

But because of the nature of their profession, medical examiners are able to — and need to — compartmentalize their emotions, Rohrig said.

"We're not all cold-hearted over here," he said. "Our investigators do have a lot of compassion.

"One of the survivor skills for this profession is the ability to compartmentalize. If you can't do that, it would drive you absolutely crazy.

"Also, just as importantly, if you can't do that, you can't focus on your job and you're not doing Sedgwick County, and its citizens, their due."