In today’s age of funerals (even basic ones) often costing $10,000 or more, the question of what happens to the bodies of homeless people – or those whose assets do not total nearly enough to pay for a basic funeral – becomes very important. But all too often, it is a forgotten question.
“That’s something I’ve never thought of until you asked it,” said one anonymous commenter on popular website that allows users to post questions about random topics in order to see what sort of replies will pop up from the world. The question was, “Who pays for the funerals of homeless people? Do they even have a funeral?”
None of those who answered the question could do so authoritatively. The attempts ranged from the thoughtful, “That’s a great question; one we all need to think more closely about,” to the grotesquely flippant, “Where do you think Taco Bell gets its meat?”
The answers were noncommittal because, well, the topic itself is not much discussed in public.
Thankfully, however, there are some reliable, useful answers to this important question, varied though they may be. And we offer a brief look at some of them in the rest of this article.
Cremation Followed by Mass Burial
Though there appears to be no reliable data by which to determine the most common manner by which state and local governments dispose of bodies not claimed by any friend or next of kin, an informal bit of research indicates that this may very well be the most popular approach: cremation within 30 days of a death followed by a storing of the ashes for up to 4 years (or more) and then a mass burial of the ashes that are never claimed. (Followed, even further, by a reusing of the boxes in which the ashes are stored.)
The City of Los Angeles is reported to follow this procedure each time it is confronted with the death of a homeless person whose relatives cannot be located or who do not respond to requests that they claim the body. City officials have been quoted in a number of different news outlets as guessing that the the caries out this procedure on up to 1,800 bodies each year. The city contracts with a private funeral home and cemetery to provide this service.
Recently, some local activists have noted with sadness that the program keeps track of, and publishes, the number of cremated remains that are added to the mass burial each year, but it does not keep track of the names of the individuals who are buried in the mass grave. A campaign has recently begun to convince city leaders to begin adding all names to an engraved plaque established at the grave site. This endeavor is estimated to cost no more than $10,000 per year, and the activists believe that price to be an exceedingly low amount to pay to honor the dignity and memory of those buried, otherwise so unceremoniously, in the mass grave.
Many other cities besides Los Angeles across the United States maintain similar programs to serve the deaths of homeless people, and Los Angeles is not the only one to forgo listing individual names. Some cities compromise on this matter by publishing an annual list of the names of people who are to be buried in a mass grave. This is usually done in the obituary section of a local newspaper and, often, the newspaper is willing to donate the space for the announcement.
Burial in Indigent Cemeteries
Another option that some cities and state governments have adopted is the burial of homeless remains in an indigent cemetery. In some cases the government buys a tract of land – often in very rural areas, where land prices are very inexpensive and property values are expected to remain low for decades – and buries unclaimed bodies in very vaguely marked, largely unmaintained graves. In many of these cases, the bodies are placed into very flimsy cardboard containers such as those often used in cremation.
Advocates for this means of disposing of the bodies of homeless people point out that it can cost much less than cremation would – especially if the government provides little or no maintenance for the property. With this method, cities and states also avoid legal liability concerns involved with cremating a person without formal permission from a family member.
Donation to Science
Another option that seems to have proved the most beneficial for all involved is to turn a homeless person’s body over to science where it can be dissected in medical schools by students learning the craft of science of medicine. This method is particularly used for bodies of homeless people in Europe where, in fact, the practice has been a part of English law for centuries. The European experience has shown that strong government involvement in a system like this can be crucial in order to avoid the corrupt, dangerous practice of selling donated organs on the black market. It may be surprising to learn that recent fictionalized accounts of such black markets are not too far astray from reality.
A particular problem with this approach to disposing of a homeless person’s body is that – even in this day of refrigeration and other methods of preservation – science typically needs use of a body relatively quickly after a death. This is problematic legally. In most cases, statutes require that a body be kept for at least several months in the event a family member or friend may come forward to claim it. This wait period can sometimes render a body unacceptable for use in medical science.
Careful readers have probably noted that, despite the title of this article, little has been mentioned about funerals themselves. The fact is, in the vast majority of cases, the bodies of homeless people are disposed of very unceremoniously without any sort of funeral or memorial service – which, of course, is difficult to do without strong participation from family and friends.
Fortunately, a growing number of churches and other charity organizations have taken to sponsoring (or even hosting) memorial services for homeless people in their communities. To be certain, these funerals are usually very basic affairs and, in some cases, several homeless people are memorialized at once in very sparsely attended ceremonies. But at least an effort is made to remember these people with grace and dignity by which Jesus Christ taught his people to love and honor each other.
To find out what sort of memorial services are available for homeless people in the area where you live, a call to a local funeral home or city hall will usually yield good results.