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Saturday, Jan 09 2010 12:00 PM

County pays burial costs for people who can't afford it

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Manuel Rojas, places boxes holding the unclaimed cremated remains of several deceased into a vault in the mausoleum section of Union Cemetery.

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  2. 2 of 2

    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Jose Leyva, walks through the mausoleum section of Union Cemetery

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BY STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writer sswenson@bakersfield.com

Sometimes the financial burden of putting remains to rest is too much for a surviving relative, or there is just no relative at all.

The public bears the cost of what in Kern County are cremations and placing a box of ashes about half the size of a shoebox in a crypt for those people. It costs about $400 per person, Supervising Deputy Coroner John VanRensselaer said.

Related Info

Indigent Burials in Kern County

2003 -- 132

2004 -- 125

2005 -- 94

2006 -- 105

2007 -- 103

2008 -- 135

2009 -- 99

Source: Kern County Coroner

Nationwide, taxpayers pay such costs for indigent or abandoned loved ones, either in state-mandated programs or Medicaid reimbursement, according to news reports.

In these tough economic times, the number of such burials have skyrocketed in hard-hit cities such as Detroit, where they nearly doubled in 2009, The Associated Press reported.

Kern County averaged about 100 such cases a year in recent years, but in 2008 indigent burials spiked to 135, VanRensselaer said. They leveled back to 99 in 2009.

That's even though Kern's unemployment stood at 15.1 percent in November, the latest figures show.

Detroit has such a big problem that it had difficulty storing the bodies until they could be buried, The Associated Press said. Kern hasn't had that problem.

About a third of working adults in Detroit are without jobs and the poverty rate is at 33.8 percent, new reports say. That led Wayne County, which serves Detroit, to buy a refrigerated truck last year to handle the overload, The New York Times reported.

Kern can "comfortably" handle 50 bodies in its morgue -- 25 on shelves and 25 on rolling tables, but bodies can double up on the tables to handle 75, VanRensselaer said.

"In the 22 years I've been here, we had to double up on some tables only a couple times," he said.

The county recently purchased two morgue trailers to handle 20 bodies each in the event of a disaster, he said.

By law, the person responsible for taking care of loved ones is the surviving immediate next of kin, VanRensselaer said.

If that person can't be found or says he or she cannot afford burial costs, then the coroner's staff reviews the situation on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Sometimes that involves more than one relative, such as children, for example.

The county has an application process for its Indigent Cremation Program that includes forms that examine employment, insurance, public aid and any other sources of income, VanRensselaer said.

If a person qualifies, then the county has Union Cemetery cremate the remains and store them in a crypt in the cemetery's mausoleum. The crypt is designed to handle two caskets and is about two-feet wide, two-feet tall and 18-feet deep. That follows an agreement the cemetery and county signed in July

Operations manager Jose Leyva said he's not sure how many boxes of ashes can be stored in the crypt, but he estimated several hundred. The crypt is in the top row of the 90-year-old mausoleum just off Baker and Potomac streets.

Each box has the name and other identifying information about the person. The cemetery keeps records of where the remains of each person are located, Leyva said.

The $400 per cremation in the county program is less than private cremations. Online advertisements set cremations in California from about $500 on up.

But for some people, that cost could keep them from being able to pay rent and put food on the table, VanRensselaer said.

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