What happens when life ends for someone with no family or means?

02/04/2016 6:00 AM |

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Death is lonely.

Everyone who leaves this world does so unaccompanied. But for some, the path leading to that departure is also lonesome. Some have no family, no friends, not even money to cover life’s various expenses. And when they cannot pay the costs of living for themselves, they likely cannot pay the costs of death either.

It’s not uncommon for an individual to die with neither financial assets nor next of kin to defray with the costs of a funeral. And although Suffolk County offers some funding, several North Fork funeral directors say they almost always take a financial hit when they handle such situations.

But they still do it willingly.

“How can you deny somebody a proper burial in the community you live in?” said Karen Heppner, funeral director at McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead. “How can I say, ‘No, I’m not going to do it for you because you’ve had hard times’?”

The county has a framework in place to assist so every person gets some sort of final rest, even if the services are limited. Getting to that point, however, requires several weeks of legwork to ensure the aid is actually needed.

When a death occurs, it is initially processed through the medical examiner’s office, where the circumstances of death are determined and officials attempt to figure out what comes next. If any family exists, they are contacted; if a will was written, it is referenced.

And if the ME’s search turns up nothing, the case goes to the county public administrator, who performs his own search for relatives and documentation. If that search yields no possible form of payment for a funeral — say, the deceased’s savings account or a child willing to foot the bill — then the county Department of Social Services can assist.

“If the body ends up with the ME and nobody comes in to claim it and they can’t locate anybody, they contact us,” said Franklyn Farris, Suffolk County’s public administrator. “We try to locate somebody, and if we can’t find anyone to step up or locate any funds, we go to DSS, they pick out the funeral home and we authorize them to do it.”

With the public administrator’s authorization, DSS can give up to $1,200 to any funeral home willing to take on such a job, often called a “welfare case” or a “DSS case.” The guidelines are strict: only a simple cloth-covered casket, short visiting hours and so on. (If they wish, though, family members can contribute up to $1,200 of their own to add services.)

Once a funeral home accepts a case, it must handle the rest of the process — from embalming to burial — on its own. Here on the North Fork, which is generally well-off compared to the rest of Suffolk County, any given funeral home could encounter a half-dozen such scenarios a year.

However, the average cost of even the simplest service and burial in the area can range from $2,300 to $3,500, according to a number of funeral directors. So when a funeral home takes on a DSS case, it does so at a substantial discount.

“Even if social services gives me $1,200, that’s not going to cover it,” Ms. Heppner said. “That’s a pretty substantial burden for us to do it.”

Joe Grattan, funeral director for DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Homes in Mattituck, said he always takes a hit when he has to purchase a plot for a DSS case. Like others, though, he is still happy to do so.

Sometimes, that cost is mitigated because a person’s family has already purchased a burial plot. And indigent veterans can be buried at Calverton National Cemetery for free.

“Because we’re so close to a national cemetery, different funeral homes have taken it on that if it’s a veteran, we’ll do a burial at Calverton National [for free],” Ms. Heppner said.

Sal Mangano, one of the directors at Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home in Riverhead, said certain religious organizations such as St. Vincent DePaul might also help shoulder the cost.

But cemeteries themselves are rarely involved in this process. Richard Ehlers, superintendent of New Bethany Cemetery in Mattituck, said he never even knows when a person is being buried with a county stipend.

“[A funeral director] will call me up and say, ‘I need a plot for a person,’<\!q>” he said. “He doesn’t tell me whether they’re rich, poor, race, anything.”

Cremation is cheaper — the whole process costs roughly $1,600 in a DSS case, according to Doug Mathie of Horton-Mathie Funeral Home in Greenport — but under New York State law, funeral directors can only cremate an individual when there is clear evidence that’s what the person wanted.

“Cremation is irreversible,” Mr. Mathie said. “Six months down the line, if a relative steps forward and says, ‘Where’s my loved one?’ and the person’s cremated, there’s a problem. But if the person’s buried in the wrong place, you can always correct the situation.”

The number of funeral homes willing to take on these cases is unclear because no law requires it.

After all, anyone who takes on a welfare case essentially loses money. But Mr. Grattan, who has “worked in every funeral home east of Patchogue,” said he has “never heard of any case being turned down.”

Ms. Heppner, Mr. Mangano, Mr. Mathie and Mr. Grattan all confirmed that their establishments accept DSS cases.

“We’re a community business, and we have to take care of the community,” Mr. Mangano said. “It’s important to [the deceased’s] loved ones, their friends, their neighbors. You just want to do the right thing in this world.”

Some homes have been doing funerals as a public service for decades. Mr. Grattan remembered that his predecessor, David DeFriest Sr., once buried four migrant workers who had died in a fire at the Cutchogue labor camp.

“I can’t say for sure whether he got paid a dime,” he said. “He may have gotten something from social services or from the Department of Welfare, as they called it in those days. What would have happened to them? I don’t really know.”

In some cases, funeral directors must play an additional role: that of final witness to the burial. Traditionally trained to help the grieving put their loved ones to rest, these men and women sometimes become surrogate families, standing in to do whatever they can to make sure everyone’s departure is properly acknowledged.

Mr. Grattan remembers several cases in which he, a clergyman and a gravedigger were the only people present at a burial. Mr. Mathie has had similar experiences, just like his recent “surreal” case.

In one instance about 20 years ago, Mr. Mathie brought a casket to a church for a service and no one came save for the priest and six pallbearers.

That stuck with him for the better part of two decades. And in the years since, he said, there have been “too many times” where a burial or a cremation went unattended. But for many, helping out in these lonely cases is simply the right thing to do — ethically, spiritually and existentially.

Photo Credit: Chris Lisinski

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