When a family can’t afford to bury a loved one, area residents have few options.
Many families look to Jefferson County for help. And, according to Jefferson County officials, the number of such families is on the rise.
Compared to larger counties such as Harris County, Jefferson County buries many more indigent dead on a per-capita basis, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said.
According to figures provided to The Examiner by County Auditor Patrick Swain, since 2008, Jefferson County has spent close to $1 million on burials for only the poorest residents of Beaumont and Port Arthur. From 2008 to 2009, the amount Jefferson County spent on indigent burial and cremations jumped dramatically, from about $29,000 to more than $181,000. In 2010, that number continued to rise to $183,829. The county spent the most in 2011 — $218,178.
“For fiscal year 2009, there was a price increase, going from roughly $1,450 per burial to $3,000 per burial,” Swain said in an e-mail. “The number of burials increased from six in 2008 to 43 in 2009.”
To save the county money, Branick said he and other commissioners are giving families the option of cremating their loved ones.
“The calculations that were done by the assistant auditor show about $120,000 savings over the last two years,” Branick said.
While Branick had suggested offering indigent families cremation only, county commissioners balked at the idea, citing religious and cultural differences. Branick said offering indigent families the option of full service burial or cremation was an acceptable compromise.
“We need to be sensitive to the needs of those who oppose cremation without unduly burdening the other taxpayers who have to pay for it,” he said. “So, it’s always a balancing act.”
According to Swain, from Oct. 1, 2010, to June of this year, the county buried 112 indigent deceased and cremated another 57.
Branick said he’s considering allotting $1,500 per indigent burial “kinda like a voucher system” for families to spend the money as they wish on burying their loved ones.
One such family, the Dunn family of Port Arthur, said they chose cremation mostly out of gratitude to Jefferson County for helping with their father, Raymond Dunn.
“When he passed, my mom became really panicked,” said Dunn’s son, Sean Dunn, who inherited his father’s home in Port Arthur. “She didn’t know what to do with everything that was going on. There was questions of how we were going to bury my father.”
Although he said his father led a fulfilling and successful career in the airline industry, the family did not have a burial plan nor insurance to help cover the cost of their father’s death.
“Money was a little tight for everybody. The county stepped up when she (Sean’s mother) was in a bind. They paid for the cremation,” he said. “They probably would’ve paid for a burial, but we wanted to keep their expenses down a little bit. It was pretty incredible.”
Sean said he spread his father’s ashes exactly where his father would have wanted.
“The big oak tree you see in the back yard, that was planted the day my father was born in 1937, and it still grows today,” Sean said. “Half of his ashes are spread around that. The other half went to my brother in Colorado.”
Although the money given to Sean and his family to bury their father does not have to be paid back, Sean said it’s only right he reimburse the county as a sign of gratitude.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Warren Claybar, owner of Claybar Funeral Home, was the lowest bidder in 2008 and has contracted to provide burial plots to all of Jefferson County at a discounted rate. He said each applicant for indigent burial passes through a maze of bureaucracy, and rightfully so.
“This is a service that the taxpayers of Jefferson County are paying. It’s about a 14-day process for the staff at Health and Human Services Department to qualify,” he said. “And that’s a serious process. They look at all the assets. In my opinion, they do a very thorough job of vetting to see if they’re truly indigent or not.”
Although some have chosen cremation to save the county money, others choose to bury their loved ones in a traditional ceremony. Branick said this option is clearly more expensive, about $2,450 compared to $1,500 for cremation.
“Most funerals run between $5,000 and $20,000. It’s expensive,” Claybar said.
Branick said each family will have to choose between traditional burial or cremation, adding his own intentions upon his death.
“I told my wife that I want to be cremated. She doesn’t like it,” he said. “She doesn’t like that idea.”