WARNER ROBINS -- Although it’s still fairly rare, more people in Houston County are being buried at public expense.
In fiscal 2011, Houston had just one pauper burial. In 2012 there were four, in 2013 there were seven, and in fiscal 2014, which ended June 30, the county had eight. The county raised its budget for pauper burials from $6,400 last year to $10,000 this year.
Such burials are more common in Bibb County, and they have also been up the past two years. In 2010 there were 19, then 20 the next year, but that jumped to 32 in 2012 and 31 last year, according to figures provided by the county.
Houston Coroner Danny Galpin said the increase may have more to do with a growing and aging population in Houston than the economic challenges of recent years.
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Unlike Houston, most paupers in Bibb are cremated because it’s cheaper, Coroner Leon Jones said. If family members object to cremation, he said, they can stop it only by paying for a funeral themselves.
A pauper burial isn’t even a bare-bones funeral. If the funeral home handling it does only what is required by law, it’s an unceremonious way to get laid low.
A pauper could be placed in a cardboard box and put in a vault without a coffin. The law requires only the vault, not the coffin. However, Galpin said, most funeral homes will use a coffin. With the county paying only $700, a pauper burial is usually a money loser for the funeral home, he said. That’s why he tries to spread the task around to different homes.
There likely would be a lot more pauper burials, he said, if it weren’t for the funeral homes working with low-income families.
“The funeral homes around here go out of their way to give everyone a decent burial,” he said. “They go above and beyond to take care of people whether they have the ability to pay or not.”
Another reason pauper burials are rare is that there is a fairly high standard for someone to be considered a pauper.
If the person has any source of income, such as Social Security or disability, pauper status would not be approved. Also, if the person owns any property, including a vehicle, that could be taken to pay for the funeral. Often, people buried as paupers are homeless.
But there’s also a little-known state law that can be invoked to force immediate family members to pay for a funeral. Even if the deceased has been estranged from the family for years, surviving family members can be forced to pay for the funeral.
Galpin and Jones both said its not uncommon for that law to be invoked.
Milton Heard, president of Hart’s Mortuary in Macon, said they do about one pauper funeral a month. And although it is a cremation, it is an actual funeral. He said the ashes are placed in an urn, and they allow family members to have a service in the chapel at no cost if they can’t afford to pay.
Sometimes pauper burials are not typical cases. Galpin said 10 to 15 years ago there were two separate instances involving fatal crashes of tractor-trailers in Houston in which the victims were determined to have been hitchhikers.
Both bodies were burned beyond recognition. They had no identification, and extensive efforts to determine who they were proved unsuccessful. Both were buried as paupers in Perry in unmarked graves and remain unidentified.
There would have been one more pauper burial in Houston last year had it not been for the efforts of some friends of a homeless man and a funeral home’s generosity. The county was going to bury Whit Martin as a pauper, but he became so well liked to those who encountered him that there was an effort to provide him with a real funeral, and McCullough Funeral Home donated its services.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.