Commonwealth Journal

February 15, 2014

Coroner’s office dealing with mounting indigent burial problem

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — There are perhaps no Pulaski Countians more vulnerable than those who have passed away, with no one left to speak for them.

The term “indigent” is used for them, a cold, inscrutable word mitigated only by the basic social concession to which it most frequently refers: a burial. In cultures around the world, it has always been a matter of honor, of dignity, to give the dead a proper final resting place.

Pulaski has no such piece of earth set aside for this purpose. However, local officials are hoping they’ve found a solution this problem.

When a cadaver arrives in the Pulaski County Coroner’s office and no next-of-kin can located to take care of funeral or burial arrangements, the county government is obligated to respectfully handle the remains.

“Obviously, we have to do something with these people,” said Coroner Chuck Godbey. “You can’t just throw them in the woods or something. It’s not just undignified, it’s a public health risk.”

Unfortunately, this is a duty that does not come cheaply.

“We give a bid to a funeral home and they bury (the deceased without next-of-kin),” said Godbey. “We have to save the taxpayers as much as we can, so we bid it out to other guys.

“But these are private businesses,” he added. “It’s not fair for us to ask private industry to bear the brunt of the expense for this either. We’re in a bad place, because the best they can do is take a a loss on it.”

The last such burial cost $1,695, noted the coroner. That includes the cost of a casket, a burial plot, and all other related expenses.

If the deceased has any real property to his or her name, that can help: Godbey said that the county government will file a lien on the property and use it to help pay for the burial costs.

However, Godbey has had five indigent cases since he took over as coroner in September of 2012, and in only one of those cases was the lien compensation possible.

“The first one I worked, while he did not own his home, he had a car that he owned outright, he had a little money in a checking account,” said Godbey. “That satisfied about half the (burial) debt.”

Two of Godbey’s five indigent cases were cremations. That’s one option that’s definitely more affordable — a cost of only about $500, he said — but more complicated from a legal standpoint.

“To bury them, you don’t have to meet any criteria,” said Godbey, “but with cremation, you have to go through court proceedings. ... The court has to be able to safely say, ‘Have you done this? Have you done that? Have you checked with these people?’

“You have to have exhausted all avenues to find the next of kin (in order to cremate an indigent body),” he added. “ ... We can always bury them and get by, but cremation is one of those things where once they’re burned, there’s no turning back. You’ve got to be cautious and careful.”

Many communities have what’s called a “potter’s field,” named after the burial site of the disgraced Judas Iscariot in the New Testament’s “Gospel of Matthew.” It’s a specific site used to serve as a burial ground for unknown or indigent deceased persons.

Godbey said that most counties in Kentucky have such an option — but Pulaski County doesn’t, and hasn’t in recent memory.

“Some indigents were buried at Ringgold Cemetery, some at Eden Cemetery, some at Pisgah Cemetery,” he said, “but there’s never been a protocol. It’s always just been whichever funeral home director would take (the body) at the lowest price.”

So why hasn’t Pulaski had a potter’s field of its own? It’s hard for Godbey to say for certain, being relatively new to the job, but “things fell through the cracks.”

That may change soon, however. Godbey has recently spoken with Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock about the possibly of acquiring access property that could be used for that very purpose.

“I talked to (Bullock) about it early last year,” said the coroner. “Some people were in the process of purchasing land and trying to figure out what they would have to have for it. When I talked to the judge-executive again (on Friday), he said that we should go back to them again because the land has been purchased now.”

Godbey wasn’t able to share any details about who the land belongs to, but did note that there were numerous possibilities for such a scenario, including bartering — “Maybe they’d want the county to cut a road and gravel it on the property in exchange for a plot of land.”

Godbey did say that the land in discussion was in the northern portion of the county.

Nothing has been finalized yet, but Godbey is hopeful that a deal can be reached before long.

In the meantime, the coroner is concerned about social conditions that could lead to indigent burials becoming a more frequent dilemma for the county.

“When I first came in here, I’d never even heard of a homeless person (in Pulaski County),” said Godbey. “I lived in Los Angeles and yeah, they were there, but I didn’t realize we had homeless people here. ... Then I came into this office, and in (the following) months, we had two people that died and had nobody to claim their bodies.

“I’ve noticed that from the time I was young, and witnessing what goes on in society now, it appears that a lot of people are disconnected from their families,” he added. “When I grew up, my grandfather lived at the end of the road. Less than a mile away was an uncle. We kept in touch and we knew where family was. Now we live in a society where more and more people take care of their own business. If you see your family, that’s nice, but it’s not that important. More people are disconnected from their families and that’s part of the problem.”