Coroner plans to take over most indigent burials

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comJune 20, 2013 

Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan intends to dispose of the remains of indigent citizens through his office, largely bypassing local funeral homes, and thus saving the city thousands of dollars a year, he announced Thursday.

In the past, all indigent burials were handled by local funeral homes. But even though the city pays only $400 per burial, Bryan thought he could save money by doing the job himself.

Georgia law states that if a body is not claimed by the family, “it shall be turned over to the coroner of the county where death occurred for disposition as provided by law.”

That, Bryan said, gives him the authority to handle all indigent burials, which he originally intended to do. But when he first floated the plan several weeks ago at a meeting between him, city leaders and several funeral home directors, the directors expressed concern that if a family wanted a particular funeral home to handle the arrangements, they should have that option.

At a follow-up meeting Thursday, Bryan agreed to that caveat. So if a family arranges for a funeral home to pick up a body, Bryan said they can either handle the burial or they can call his office and he will do it. But those bodies that come to his office, and he estimates that to be about 70 percent of indigent cases, will be handled by his office.

Dorothy Kimbrough of Kimbrough Funeral Home was one of those directors who said she wanted the option of handling some of the indigent cases, in spite of the fact that they make little or no money off them.

“We have built a rapport with some of these families. We do this as a courtesy to a family that we’ve already served,” Kimbrough said. “As long as we have a choice, I’m OK with it.”

Columbus Councilor Bruce Huff, whose family owns International Funeral Home, and who had a public disagreement with Bryan during Tuesday’s council meeting, declined comment Thursday.

The city currently pays funeral homes $400 for indigent burials. Bryan estimates the city handles about 100 indigent cases a year, so if he handles 70 of those, the city will save about $28,000.

As far as the cost to the city of the actual burial, the Public Works department opens and closes the graves, so that cost remains constant regardless of who handles the remains.

In the case of cremations, the city pays funeral homes $600 for that service, but saves the cost of opening and closing the graves because cremains do not have to be buried as deep as bodies, Bryan said.

But Bryan said he has contracted with an area crematorium to perform the cremations for $315, saving the city $285 per cremation. The real savings with cremations are long-term, Bryan said, because each gravesite can handle three cremated bodies. That will extend the life of the indigent cemetery, he said.

Bryan said he will not cremate a body without the family’s permission. In the rare event that no family member can be found or contacted, he intends to bury the body rather than cremate it, just to be on the safe side, he said.

“It’s an option that the family has,” Bryan said. “I’ll be consulting with the families of those who come through my office. I’ll be pushing for it, but it’s their option.”

Bodies of indigent citizens are not embalmed, Bryan said. They are stored under refrigeration until burial, which will be in a body bag inside a plywood coffin. Graves are unmarked, but the city maintains records of where people are buried.

There is no formal funeral service for indigent burials, Bryan said, but families are notified of when and where the burial will take place.

City Manager Isaiah Hugley, who was at Thursday’s meeting, said he was pleased with the arrangement.

“It’s a win-win for the city with the coroner offering to go above and beyond,” Hugley said. “And it’s a win-win for the funeral homes in that they get the option.”

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