Illinois has no more money for the funerals and burials of poor people reliant on public aid, state officials say.
But deceased indigents must be buried somehow, and it appears the burden will fall to local government, though in Cook County, the office charged with those burials appears woefully underfunded for the task.
Cook County has a budget of just $60,000 to bury its indigent dead, a task that cost the state $7 million last year in Cook County alone.
Until July 1, the Illinois Department of Human Services had a budget of $12.6 million for indigent burials. The fund paid about $1,650 per deceased person – $1,103 for a funeral and $552 for a burial – to be handled by a private funeral home, which would later be reimbursed. Last year, about 12,000 such cases were funded statewide.
But facing a budget crisis, Gov. Pat Quinn last month signed a new state budget that slashed the fund to $1.9 million. The move sparked protests from pastors, including Pastor Ira J. Acree of Austin’s Greater St. John Bible Church.
“This continues the diabolical war against the poor … Everyone deserves to have their dignity, privacy and respect,” Acree said. “And what are you going to do with the bodies?”
One-and-a-half months later, the $1.9 million allocated statewide for the current fiscal year – which runs July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012 – has already run out, said Januari Smith Trader, spokeswoman for the state’s human services department.
“The bottom line here is the General Assembly did not appropriate adequate funding to sustain this program for a full year,” Smith Trader said.
When the initial cuts were made, Quinn responded to protests by saying he would scour the budget for a way to reinstate the funding.
But so far, there’s no indication that’s happened.
Funeral home directors across the state recently received word that the state would no longer reimburse them for indigent funerals after Aug. 15, said Duane Marsh, executive director of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association.
In reality, that Aug. 15 cut-off meant little to many funeral homes, who had already stopped doing indigent funerals because it took so long for the state to pay, said Cathlene Johnson, general manager of Smith & Thomas Funeral Homes, which runs two funeral homes in Austin.
Johnson said her funeral homes were some of a few in Austin to perform “public aid burials,” which they did as “part of (their) community service.” Indigent burials pay roughly one-third of what a regular burial costs at Smith & Thomas, Johnson said.
Each Smith & Thomas location performed about five indigent burials per month, she said. But recently they stopped accepting public money altogether, after the state began lagging a year or more on sending the $1,103 reimbursement checks.
“We try to help people … but we want to stay in business,” Johnson said. “We’re still trying to get paid (by the state) for 2010 cases.”
With state funds and private funeral homes removed from the picture, burials of indigent persons will now fall to county morgues, said Smith Trader of the state human services department.
But with a budget for indigent burials a fraction of what the state paid for the task last year, how the county will handle the job remains unclear.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office – the department charged with indigent burials – has only $60,000 allocated for the task, according to an office spokeswoman. Last year, that amount paid for just 125 indigent people to be buried in separate coffins in seven mass graves.
County officials this week downplayed any immediate crisis.
“We are monitoring the situation very closely. We do not foresee any problems in the immediate future, and we are prepared to meet those challenges if they do arise,” Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle’s office said in a statement.
That sentiment was echoed by the medical examiner’s office.
“We do not foresee any negative effects on our work load and will be working with the Bureau of Administration and the President’s office to manage any financial difficulties that may arise,” that office said in a statement.
Marsh, the head of the state funeral directors association, urged low-income people who anticipate funeral costs to contact funeral homes before the death of a loved one to discuss their options, such as a payment plan, asking the community for donations, cremation or donating the body to science.
Spokespeople for state Reps. Camille Lilly (D-Chicago) and La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.