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The Burdens of Burial

In cash-strapped counties across the United States, funeral assistance is often the first public benefit on the chopping block.

By Ravi Mangla


(Photo: Herry Lawford/Flickr)

Funeral inequality dates, in a very literal sense, back to humanity’s earliest narratives. In Ancient Greece, a dignified burial was believed necessary for safe passage into the afterlife. Those buried without the proper rites — washing the body and anointing it with oil, for example — were fated to roam the banks of the Acheron River for the next 100 years, bereft of peace. Poor Greeks interred without the token Obel coin risked being denied passage aboard Charon’s ferry. While the burial process of today doesn’t bear the same degree of superstition as civilizations of old, dignity in death is still limited to those who can afford it.

The price of funerals has steadily increased every year since 1960. The median cost of an adult funeral in the United States jumped 28.6 percent between 2004 and 2014, from $5,582 to $7,181, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Funeral professionals link this uptick to the material costs of caskets and vaults. But the numbers tell a different story, with basic services fees marking the largest change over that period.

In cash-strapped counties across America, funeral assistance is often the first public benefit on the chopping block. Last year, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner announced the suspension of the state’s funeral assistance program, which had previously contributed $1,103 to low-income families — still a small fraction of the total interment costs. State Democrats, meanwhile, have attempted to counter the latest round of budgetary cuts. Just last month, Senate Bill 2046, aimed at restoring funding for higher education and critical human services (including funeral aid), passed both the House and Senate. Rauner, however, is widely expected to veto the measure.

Single plots at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn start at $17,000.

In New York City, the Human Resources Administration grants a $900 reimbursement for funerals under $1,700, but this, again, is only a drop in the bucket. The amount of assistance has remained static since the program was established in 1987. And as exorbitant as Manhattan real estate is, cemetery plots are worse: Two vacant plots in the East Village neighborhood were recently marketed for $350,000 each. Even less exclusive resting places on the city fringes yield exorbitant price tags. Single plots at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (the final resting place of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein) start at $17,000.

With dwindling state and local government assistance, the onus falls on overburdened community organizations and distant relatives, many of whom are in no better financial standing than the deceased. Funeral homes rarely allow clients to pay in installments, which leaves families vulnerable to predatory lending and other dubious loan schemes. In an article in Personal Capital, former funeral industry professional Holly Johnson mentions instances in which cars and guns were accepted in lieu of payment. Some families have resorted to crowdfunding to offset the cost of burial. A quick search for funerals on GoFundMe generates tens of thousands of results. The website Funeralfund was created for this explicit purpose, though the website takes a five percent cut of each fundraising campaign.

Cremation presents a more affordable option, but religious and cultural precedent discourages many families from the practice. More to the point, choice of one’s funeral shouldn’t be a privilege afforded to those fortunate few. How we provide for the poor among us, both in life and in death, forms the moral backbone of a society. To cremate against someone’s will, or bury them without attribution in a potter’s field, is yet another way in which the impoverished are stripped of their agency and self-worth: the final deprival in a life of quiet hardship.

In 2014, Quaker Social Action, a United Kingdom-based non-profit focused on alleviating poverty, launched their Fair Funerals Campaign. The project seeks to educate consumers on the options available to them, bring the issue of funeral poverty to the attention of policymakers, and encourage funeral homes to commit to a higher standard of ethics. The organization is already achieving results, with more than 10 percent of Britain’s funeral industry signing the pledge. This type of holistic approach to funeral advocacy has yet to be replicated in the U.S.

Unless state and county government are moved to reverse course—which seems uncertain in the present economic climate—the solution will depend on more funeral homes and cemeteries offering pro bono or sliding scale services. Businesses could model the program after charity care at for-profit hospitals, which offers financial assistance to struggling families. This would likely require the businesses to solicit contributions from families with whom they have long-standing relationships or seek funds from outside donors.

The most embattled solution would involve the federal government providing matching funds for state assistance programs. Presently, the federal government’s only contribution to surviving spouses comes in the form of a $255 lump sum death benefit — hardly enough for a decent arrangement of flowers. Matching federal funds would allow for increased assistance to grieving families without straining state budgets. In assuming greater responsibility for the deceased, federal and state governments would ensure that families won’t be saddled with debt during their time of mourning, and that each person receives the coda that he or she deserves.