Monday, November 16, 2009

Digging their own graves

“We can’t afford to live, and now we can’t even afford to die.”
That’s what one Athens County resident told me when I asked about funeral expenses for families living in poverty. Believe it or not, some families in Athens County are now digging the graves of their loved ones in order to save money on funeral expenses.

It does not happen every day, and many cemeteries in the county won’t allow just anyone to dig a grave. Also, one local funeral home director told me that some people offer to dig the graves of their deceased family members and friends as a gesture for their families, and see it as part of the grieving process.

To be sure, though, many families in Athens County and around the country are digging the graves simply because they cannot afford the funeral costs and have to find ways to save money.
I talked recently with several people who have been involved in helping families get crews together to dig graves. Sometimes the crews have equipment, other times the family members and friends are digging with shovels. This work would be difficult at any time, but it is made worse by the fact that these individuals are going through the grieving process for their deceased family member or friend at the same time.

Along the same lines, some families cannot afford any type of funeral for a loved one. The state of Ohio used to pay up to $750 for burial costs for an indigent individual, but the funding for that program was wiped out in 2001. Cities and townships have to pay up to $750 out of their own general funds for the burial of an unclaimed body, but there is no set law in the state for burying the body of an individual whose family or friends can’t pay for the funeral.

Many cities or townships will pay up to $750 for indigent funeral costs, and sometimes the local government groups will pay more than $1,000 for the funeral costs. Sometimes the local government will only pay the costs if the body is cremated.
And sadly, sometimes the local governments will not pay anything and do not have any policy in place for burying indigent bodies.

In addition, many funeral homes will not accept payment plans for funeral expenses anymore. Their costs have gone up over the years, and they say that while they do their best to work with low-income families, the payment plans are no longer feasible for them.

All of this leaves families digging graves to save money, holding fundraisers to pay burial expenses, donating bodies to science because they can’t afford a funeral, taking out high-interest loans to pay funeral expenses or just leaving the bodies unclaimed so there will be no funeral and so that the local government will be forced to pay for burial.

Our society has a hard enough time treating people with respect while they are alive, and now we are turning our backs on people living in poverty when they die. The federal, state or local governments need to do something about this problem and help out these families in need. This is a growing problem in Athens County and around the country, and it’s a sad commentary on our society.

We can’t just stand by and do nothing while our neighbors dig their own graves.