Death may be the great equalizer, but for the poor, access to burial services can be far from equitable. Those living in poverty face not only grief but also an overwhelming financial burden and in a few cases the inability to practice one of the most basic human rituals: seeing a loved one laid to rest.

In the Portland region, a charitable fund for Catholics along with parishes’ generosity ensure the faithful are buried or cremated in a dignified manner. Poor and low-income families without a faith community or financial plan, however, struggle to cover costs associated with death.

“Churches help, and some hospices have funds available for patients, but you have to already be in the system,” said Daniel Serres, director of the Gethsemani Funeral Home, operated by the Portland Archdiocese. “There really is not much outside assistance for families.” 

Serres believes the dearth of aid means many families can’t pay to care for a loved one’s body in a way they wish. Though rare, some even can’t afford to take possession of a family member’s cremated remains.

The indigent in Oregon

Portland’s most visible poor — the homeless — may die alone in shelters, tents or on the streets, but the majority have family or friends who step in to pay for funeral or burial services, according to Kimberly DiLeo, chief deputy medical examiner for Multnomah County.

Of the estimated 80 homeless deaths in Portland this year, only three individuals — or under 4 percent — went unclaimed by a family member.

Poor and low-income families, though, face mounting costs that limit their funeral options for loved ones.

A cremation in Oregon runs about $550 on the lower end; the average cost for a funeral in the United States is between $6,000-$9,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

And there is limited financial help. Some individuals have a death benefit or possibly an insurance policy to offset their burial costs. Local churches may offer donations and there are funeral homes that provide discounted rates or payment plans.

According to Deon Strommer, president of Northeast Portland’s First Call Mortuary Services, at one time Oregon had a fund to assist families with funeral expenses. By the mid-1980s, “with budget crunches, it became the obligation of the family,” said Strommer, who’s been in the funeral and burial industry for 34 years.

Since 1993 the state has had what’s called an indigent burial fund. But the money is not for families. Instead it goes to partially reimburse funeral homes that help with indigent cremations and burials.

Bodies are classified as “indigent” by the state Mortuary and Cemetery Board when the deceased has no way to cover burial or cremation expenses, and no family member or friend has a desire or a “means to pay for disposition of the deceased,” reads state law.

Last year, based on reimbursement claims through the state, there were 367 indigent cremations and burials. The indigent reimbursement fund is based on money taken from death filing fees. State law requires that $6 of every $20 fee be put into the fund.

Before a funeral home can apply for reimbursement, it must go through an extensive process to try and track down funds belonging to the deceased that could cover expenses, including checking if the person has unclaimed property and reaching out to the Department of Veterans Affairs in case there are benefits owed.

If no payment source can be found within 10 days, funeral homes must offer the body to an educational research institution. Currently Western University of Health Sciences, a medical school in the town of Lebanon, is the only institution to take bodies.

If not accepted for scientific research, the body typically is cremated and the ashes scattered or buried. Oregon law directs the funeral establishment to dispose of the body in the “least costly and most environmentally sound manner” that does not conflict with any known wishes of the deceased.

Following an application process, the state Mortuary and Cemetery Board may then reimburse around $450, well below the average cost of cremation in the state.

Funeral homes and mortuaries volunteer to be part of the indigent burials and cremations to spread out the burden.

“I’ve always thought of it as like jury duty, something we should do,” said Brent Carnes, general manager at First Call Mortuary. “Somebody needs to take care of those folks.”

Double loss

It is not clear how often it occurs, but there are some cases in which a loved one is deemed indigent when a family would like the remains but cannot cover burial or cremation costs. Once cremated, the indigent body’s remains are the property of the funeral establishment, and if a family wants the cremains, a funeral home is allowed either to dispose of the remains or give them back to a family for free.

There is no data to show how many families are not reunited with a loved one’s indigent cremains because of inability to pay. But funeral directors in Oregon acknowledge it does occur.

Serres said he recalled three instances in eight years working at one Oregon funeral home in which a family had to leave a body because they could not afford to take the remains. 

Keith Mertes, manager of Mount Scott Funeral Home in Southeast Portland, along with several other funeral home managers in the Portland area, agree that once in a while a funeral establishment will not release indigent cremains to a family who wants them. “It’s a decision based on the funeral home operator or who owns the funeral home,” said Mertes.

One man in Old Town Portland recently did encounter that trauma, according to Crystal Akins, spiritual support coordinator at Maybelle Center for Community. The center was founded by a Catholic priest and works to prevent isolation among Old Town’s poor and homeless residents.

Akins, who knew the man and his wife through Maybelle’s programming, said because the couple had a fractured family and “didn’t have one penny to put toward the end of life,” the wife’s body likely was classified as indigent.

Disoriented by grief, the husband at first couldn’t remember where his wife’s body was located, recalled Akins.

Cathy Mounts, resident services coordinator with Innovative Housing Inc. in Portland, supports low-income residents to prevent evictions from affordable housing properties. She was informed first by a morgue in Clackamas County and then a crematorium in Multnomah County that a family member could not pick up the wife’s remains.

Mounts, her voice punctuated with emotion, said she was told that if someone lacked money or had no next of kin, the body eventually would be cremated and disposed of. She said the discovery was “disturbing.”

“Poor people are already marginalized; already they are directly or indirectly treated as trash, and then, at the end of life, they are literally trashed.”

Akins initially contacted a number of area churches of different denominations seeking assistance to cover the cost of cremation for the wife, but the churches either didn’t respond or said they’d prefer to spend the money on the living.

Cathy Phelps, chief medical examiner for Clackamas County, said in her experience, most funeral establishments can work with a family to make funeral arrangements affordable or return the cremated remains of an indigent body without asking for payment.

“In one case a local church raised enough money to help a person who didn’t even belong to it,” said Phelps. “There are lot of good people out there.”

Unlike the man in Old Town, in cases where a family member ultimately can pay for indigent cremains, the funeral home typically gives the remains to the family.

Strommer faced that situation last year, when a man at first didn’t want responsibility for his girlfriend’s body, but later changed his mind (Strommer keeps indigent remains for 90 days before burying or scattering them). “He paid for the cost of cremation and I paid the state back for the reimbursement amount,” said Strommer.

For indigent bodies received through Multnomah County, Strommer acknowledges he does not return the cremated remains to a family who either cannot or will not pay the cost of cremation.

“If I did give them away, the cost would get passed along as extra to the paying client,” he said.

To dispose of the indigents’ ashes, Strommer takes them to a favorite spot in eastern Oregon, says a prayer and scatters them.

Clackamas County has a small fund that is used to compensate Strommer’s First Call Mortuary for any indigent cremations. So those cremains are then sent back to the county either to be disposed of eventually or given to the family.

As funeral establishments comply with state law regarding the indigent, with some giving cremains to families for free and others choosing not to, Akins and Mounts believe there are instances with heartbreaking consequences.

The poor — including families who find a way to pay for burial and those few who may lose the rights over a loved one’s cremains — are a demographic that could use additional support from the community, said Serres.

In life, there is a privilege that comes with financial means, observed Akins, “and that privilege remains in death.”