What happens to the homeless when they die? It's something I've never thought about, maybe you haven't either. But, now that the question has been raised aren't you curious to know...
Each year, the city of Cleveland buries 10-15 homeless persons as part of the "Indigent burial program." Though not a kind phrase "An individual is eligible for such a program when he or she is of low income and neither they nor their families can provide the burial costs." explains Robert Staib, Director of Cleveland Public Health.
Before such a monetary determination can be made, a small investigation is conducted first by the hospital or coroner and later if needed by the contracted funeral director. In a simple case, three to six phone calls can produce a friend or relative. Because the homeless often carry everything they own on them, leads such as a social workers' name and other random phone numbers in pockets are usually easy to find.
What if there are no leads? "Some hospitals are better than others and have been known to hold the body up to 30 days in an effort to find friends and family," says Francis Corrigan, funeral director of F.J. Corrigan Funeral Home in Orange Village. If absolutely nothing can be found, a missing person file may be contacted where approximate age, sex, color and other vital information that can help solve the mystery.
In addition to looking for friends and family of the deceased, sources of income for burial costs is also investigated. Any evidence of bank accounts, Social Security, Veteran's benefits or other forms of government assistance will relieve the city of the financial expense.
When a homeless person dies, there are two paths the body may take. In either case, step one involves a report to Mark Kassouf, registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. When the individual dies from natural conditions, for example in a hospital from old age, Corrigan will receive an prepare the body for funeral arrangements.
Arrangements include the embalming and placement of the body in a burial box. If there are no family or friends found, a one hour viewing and service is provided. An appropriate Committal Prayer is selected from a minister's book, providing comforting words to a variety of denominations. If the family is found, they decide what they want to do.
When a homeless person does not die in a public place, does not die of natural causes, or suspicion of foul play is involved, the legal responsibility to determine cause of death is assigned to the county coroner. According to Elizabeth Balraj, the Cuyahoga County Coroner, the most common causes of death are from "exposure to the harsh elements such as pneumonia, disease caused from poor health conditions such as tuberculosis, drug and alcohol related and some violence."
Many of the homeless die because they don't have access to health care or fall victim to crime on the streets. Balraj also said, "whether a person is homeless or wealthy, they are treated with an equal amount of dignity and respect."
If you would like to visit a homeless or other noted "indigent" gravesite they are located at Highland Park Cemetery in Highland Hills. I'm afraid you may not be able to find exactly the person you are looking for. There are no individual markers to identify the deceased or to say a few personal words. Impersonal numbered stakes replace the more dignified headstones. Among the nameless plots, a lonely stone complete with poem stands as a reminder of the persons we may have looked down on, shared a few dollars with, or shrugged with pity as we walked by. May they rest in peace.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published January – February 1996 Issue 13