The poor economy is taking a toll even on the dead, with an increasing number of bodies in Los Angeles County going unclaimed by families who cannot afford to bury or cremate their loved ones.
At the county coroner’s office -- which handles homicides and other suspicious deaths -- 36% more cremations were done at taxpayers’ expense in the last fiscal year over the previous year, from 525 to 712.
The county morgue, which is responsible for the indigent and others who go unclaimed, saw a 25% increase in cremations in the first half of this year over the same period a year ago, rising to 680 from 545.
The demands on the county crematorium have been so high that earlier this year, officials there stopped accepting bodies from the coroner. The coroner’s office since has contracted with two private crematories for $135,000 to handle the overflow.
“It’s a pretty dramatic increase,” said Lt. David Smith, a coroner’s investigator. “The families just tell us flat-out they don’t have the money to do a funeral.”
Once the county cremates an unclaimed body -- typically about a month after death -- next of kin can pay the coroner $352 to receive the ashes. The fee for claiming ashes from the morgue is $466.
Christopher Agosta’s ashes are among those waiting.
Last month, the coroner called his sister, Tarnya Baker, 41, of Amesbury, Mass., to notify her that Agosta, 43, of West Hollywood, had shot himself in the head. Although Baker was her brother’s next of kin, they had not spoken since he left Massachusetts for California 15 years ago. Only after he died did she learn that he was in debt. He shot himself as sheriff’s officials attempted to evict him. He left a note giving his possessions to the local AIDS clinic.
Baker said she wants to claim his ashes, but she and her husband have two children and a struggling glass-glazing business. During the last two years, they have had to lay off their two employees.
“I know that I can’t afford to handle all this,” Baker said. “I can’t afford to fly out there and ask questions.”
Coroners and funeral directors around the country say they are seeing the same trend as cash-strapped families cope with funeral costs. Just claiming a body from the L.A. County coroner costs $200. Once a body is claimed, private cremations usually run close to $1,000, Smith said. Funeral homes charge an average of $7,300 to transport and bury a body in a simple grave, according to the National Funeral Home Directors Assn.
“No one is immune from this,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Assn. in Sacramento. “The economic malaise we’re in is affecting everybody.”
Coroner’s investigators see the emotional and financial fallout up close.
“You go to the house where the person who died was the only breadwinner, a traffic accident, and there’s the wife and you see children,” Smith said. “Especially with a younger family, it blows them out of the water.”
Smith said that in his dozen years at the coroner’s office, he cannot remember seeing such a high number of families unable to afford the cost of claiming a body. If families ask, coroner’s staff will refer them to several funeral homes, including 70-year-old Allen English & Estrada Funeral Services in Bell Gardens, which offers cremations through its Cremation Society of Los Angeles.
The society’s director assistant, Joseph Harvey, said cremations have increased about 15% since the economic downturn last year. His office cremates about 400 bodies a year and charges about $700.
Harvey said the funeral industry is trying to do a better job of marketing itself in this economy. He said the casket manufacturers he deals with have stopped selling some expensive models as demand wanes.
“Families are making different choices based on the economy, choosing different caskets or urns or holding shorter services,” said Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Home Directors Assn. “They’re cutting back on floral memorials. If they have a funeral procession, they’re not having the family limousine.”
Alfredo Xochipa, 27, said he shopped around for a lower-cost casket after his 21-year-old brother, Pedro,, was shot to death at a party in Los Angeles on July 4.
Xochipa, who works for the county’s Department of Public Social Services, found a metal casket at a warehouse store in Boyle Heights for $1,300, about $1,000 less than retail. Because his brother was a crime victim, Xochipa said, the coroner’s office waived its $200 fee. A week after his brother was killed, the family held a funeral and buried Pedro at Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello.
But even after receiving $7,500 from a state crime victims fund to defray costs, his family still owed more than $4,000.
“He had a lot of friends, and we have a lot of family, so that helped us out, we got a lot of donations,” Xochipa said. “But there was still money that my dad had to request as a loan from friends.”
Xochipa said his father, a truck driver, has not had luck finding work to pay off the funeral debt. The family has applied for assistance from the Catholic Archdiocese.
Smith said he has seen many families go to great lengths to claim their loved ones’ remains, despite financial setbacks.
“We’ve had families try to have car washes and other little fundraising events. . . . They try to do right,” he said.
For the dead left to the county, officials attempt to recover cremation costs from the estates. But the county does not require relatives to prove they are too poor to pay. Smith said his office, with a staff of four, cannot investigate. The morgue is similarly strapped. If records later show a family could have paid to claim a body, by law the county can recover the cost.
Other counties investigate families’ ability to pay. San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault, first vice president of the California State Coroners’ Assn., said his office recently began requiring applicants for county-funded cremations to submit a three-page application listing bank accounts, property or other assets.
“We figure that will be a deterrent,” Foucrault said. “We have found people that take advantage of the system. They do have the funds to pay but feel because they have been estranged from somebody, they shouldn’t have to be responsible for the burial.”
In some cases, family members say they have been delayed by Los Angeles County’s next-of-kin policy, which requires that the closest living relative be given time to claim the remains.
Mark Hooper, 49, of Lancaster, died in December of complications from hepatitis C. After his body went unclaimed, he was cremated at county expense.
At the time of his death, the carpet contractor was unemployed, ill, in debt and living near his parents in Lancaster.
His 22-year-old daughter, Angelica Hooper, who lives in the San Diego area, said she intends to allow her grandparents to claim the ashes. She also said she’s been busy with work.
“I have to keep my mind on other things,” she said. “Just him passing was a lot to deal with.”
Carol Hooper, 70, a retired aircraft mechanic, said last week that her son struggled with addiction and had trouble holding down jobs. But, she said, he was also a kind, giving person who made many friends growing up in Redondo Beach. If her granddaughter does not claim the ashes, she will.
“We’re not rich; we’re retired,” Hooper said. “But we’ll make it for him.”
In Massachusetts, Christopher Agosta’s sister said she, too, is determined to do the right thing.
“He is my brother,” Tarnya Baker said. “He died alone. I’m bringing him home.”
She has two years to claim his remains. If she doesn’t, Agosta’s ashes will be buried with those of hundreds of others in a pauper’s grave.