Indigent Burials: When No One Can Afford to Bury You

By Nicki Gorny

Approximately two out of three funerals at Bican Bros. Funeral Home in Cleveland don’t match the traditional idea of a funeral.

In these funerals, a thirty-minute viewing in which the deceased lies on an aluminum cot allows family members to identify a body and say a final good-bye, explained funeral director Amy Bican. It’s a service Bican Bros. conducts for approximately 200 Cleveland families each year through its indigent burial program.

An indigent burial, funded and arranged by an individual’s city of residence rather than the individual’s family, applies to those who die without any family or financial means for a burial.

“They fall back on us to make arrangements,” said Thomas Gilson, medical examiner for Cuyahoga County.

For the 6-8 indigent burials situations Jilson said he sees pass through his office each month, a number he said increases during economic downturns, the first step is a “good faith effort” to locate the next of kin.

Family, once located, may be willing to make arrangements for the deceased, he said. When family cannot be found or cannot afford a burial, Jilson said the city initiates funeral arrangements.

Most cases of indigent burials occur within the city limits of Cleveland, he said, estimating the number at 85 percent. But funeral costs are covered by an individual’s city of residence. So a Brunswick resident, he said as an example, would be covered by Brunswick regardless of whether the resident died in Brunswick, Cleveland or a different city.

For the City of Cleveland, Bican Bros. Funeral Home is contracted to provide indigent burial and cremation services. Now in its third year with the indigent program, Bican Bros. receives city funding for the funeral home’s services, Bican said.

The arrangement allows Bican Bros. to hire funeral director apprentices, she said, and offers valuable experience to the mortuary science school graduates while providing a needed service in the city.

Following cremation, authorized by the individual’s family or by the coroner when no family can be located, Bican said the funeral home holds remains for one year. Those that remain unclaimed are then turned over to the city for burial.

In three years, she said, the funeral home has only made two or three deliveries. Since the city buries cremated remains in plots of 12, this totals between 24 and 36.

“Of 600,” she estimated, “that’s not a huge amount.”

In Cleveland, these remains are taken to Memorial Park, otherwise known as the Potters’ Field, said Michael Cox, Director of Public Works. 

The gravesite, located on Green Road, currently has no signs indicating a cemetery or individual graves, Cox said. But this is to change within the coming year, he said, as the city is starting to receive sufficient funding to purchase headstones for each grave. These will include a name for each of the 12 individuals buried in each grave.

Gilson, the medical examiner, said respect for the deceased is important in arrangements such as indigent burials.

 “That’s part of the function of the office,” he said. “To see they’re treated humanely.”

Correction:  This article was altered online to reflect the correct spelling of the medical examiner of Cuyahoga County Thomas Gilson

Copyright Street Chronicle October 2013 Cleveland Ohio