Burying the poor

ALPENA – In the 160 years since Alpena was first settled, the community has been no stranger when it comes to burying its poor.

At the potter’s field in Evergreen Cemetery, an unmarked expanse of lawn contains the remains of 299 men, women and children, including 64 babies. All were charity cases. None of them or their survivors could afford what was then considered a proper burial and headstone.

These days funeral and burial services still are costly for people living in poverty. They also are costly for funeral homes, which wind up picking up most of the tab.

Although the Michigan Department of Human Services is willing to chip in up to $700 to cover the cost of a memorial service, cemetery plot and vault, it comes nowhere close to covering the actual costs, funeral industry professionals say.

Wayne McWilliams, who owns McWilliams Funeral Home in Alpena, estimates that he pays $20,000 out of pocket a year to provide services for the poor.

“It’s not a lot of people,” McWilliams said. “Of 400 deaths a year in Alpena County, you may be talking about 20 to 25 people, who can’t afford to pay anything for their burials.”

Some of those individuals have been alone for a long time and have hardly any families. he said.

Other times, “it’s a case where some people, who never prepared fully for life never prepared fully for death,” McWilliams said. “Probably the worse-case scenario I ever heard was some guy who said, ‘Oh I don’t care. It’s somebody else’s problem.’ “

McWilliams gave some examples:

“If I call Evergreen Cemetery and I say I have a Department of Human Services burial, they will provide a space,” McWilliams said. The cemetery is operated by Alpena’s Department of Public Works.

“But the full cost of space for the grave, plus opening and closing is $1,240. The state is offering $145,” McWilliams said.

Cremations also are costly.

“Let’s say the state is going to give me $600 for the cremation and the memorial service, I need another $500 for what is going to be involved,” he said. “The family has to pay that upfront or else they will be denied the $600 from DHS.”

There also are emotional hurdles for families and funeral home operators alike.

Some families are familiar with the process, because they have received other benefits from DHS, McWilliams said.

“If you are starting from scratch and you have to make an application, it’s horrendous. You’re in shock and going through whatever minimum motions you can go through. Then all of a sudden you have to go to the DHS and make an application. And just because you do that, it doesn’t guarantee the funeral home is going to get any money,” he said.

“The majority of us are doing what we do, because we truly love what we do and we want to help people,” McWilliams said. “There are a lot of avenues available for people to make those arrangements and plans. But the people, who end up in those circumstances are the last kind of people who would make those plans like the guy who says: ‘It’s not my problem, it’s somebody else’s.’ “

For some savings, families can bury their dead in church cemeteries, such as Holy Cross Cemetery, McWilliams said.

Sally Lappan, office manager for the cemetery at 1300 W. Washington, identified those costs.

“The county pays $40 and we donate a grave where we think we have a single grave,” she said. “The only stipulation is that they can’t put a marker on the grave unless they pay for the plot.”

No one knows that the unmarked site is a charity grave, she said.

“But it happens so rarely. I would say we get maybe one a year,” Lappan said. “We try to keep it low key.”

Cost-wise, though, the cemetery is out about $900, she said. The plot costs $400 and standard burial is an additional $500.

But, if the family is able to cover the cost later, they can then place a headstone on the grave.

“I think when they realize that it’s an unmarked grave, they come up with some money,” Lappan said.

If the deceased had young children at the time of death, they sometimes are able to afford a stone once they have grown up and gotten into the work force, she said.

Evergreen Cemetery has a similar policy and does not allow survivors to put up headstones until the plot and burial are paid for.

During a recent visit, Manager Dave Cronk, showed off several plots tucked into vacant spaces along the drives that crisscross the property. Some were covered only with grass. Others, that were once bare, were now crowned with modest headstones, which families decorated with artificial flowers, angels, Mylar balloons and other mementoes.

Other bare plots shows some signs of caring family members. A memento or two are tucked into the ground as a remembrance.