A local man was found dead in his bed earlier this month. On top of dying alone, he had no death benefit, insurance policy, friends or family willing and able to pay for cremation.
Once the body was discovered and taken to Hughes-Ransom Mortuary & Crematory in Astoria, Funeral Director John R. Alcantara began the process of finding anyone who could pay, at least partially, for services.
No one came forward, leaving the funeral home with the responsibility — and the expense.
“It’s just something that’s a shared responsibility in a community,” Alcantara said. “This is a safety net for people who have nothing.”
Oregon has partially reimbursed funeral homes for indigent cremations and burials since 1993. The state Legislature altered the process in 2015, widening the criteria for a body to be considered indigent.
Still, after peaking at 443 in 2014, the number of indigent cremations and burials statewide gradually decreased to 332 last year. The drop comes as total deaths in Oregon have jumped from 32,771 in 2011 to 36,556 last year.
The figures are positive for funeral homes, which bear most of the financial burden.
When a body is discovered, law enforcement attempts to notify friends or family. Starting with potential spouses, officials then reach out to adult children, parents, siblings and anyone who may have the legal right or desire to oversee funeral services.
Hughes-Ransom, for instance, has only handled two indigent cases in the past two years.
“I would say it’s fairly rare that there’s somebody we’re not able to track down through various means,” Astoria Police Deputy Chief Eric Halverson said.
Most local funeral homes have volunteered to be on an on-call list when officials cannot find next of kin.
When no one is tapped to pay, the funeral home performs cremations that typically would cost more than $1,600, Alcantara said. The state Mortuary and Cemetery Board, following a lengthy application process, may then reimburse up to $461.
“This is so much of a process for so little money,” Alcantara said.
The indigent reimbursement fund is based on money taken from death filing fees. State law requires that $6 of every $20 fee be put into the fund.
Funeral homes are required to explore numerous other avenues for reimbursement before receiving money from the state. Within five days of receiving a body, they must confirm if the person has the means to pay through his or her estate, attempt to locate family, check if the person has unclaimed property through the state that may help offset costs, contact any friends or organizations that may help and reach out to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in case they are eligible for benefits.
The requirements, part of the law passed in 2015, may be a factor in the lower number of indigent cases, said Sarah Casey, indigent disposition specialist for the Mortuary and Cemetery Board. “They have a lot more hoops to jump through now, but they are helpful hoops,” she said.
If no payment source can be found within 10 days, funeral homes must offer the body to an educational or research institution. It’s the final step before funeral homes can apply for reimbursement, and it typically is not successful.
Western University of Health Sciences, a medical school in Lebanon, offers funeral homes located more than 100 miles away — including those in Clatsop County — $670 for cadavers. Out of 376 requests by funeral homes last year, the university only accepted 16, said Steven Carmichael, the school’s body donation director.
To be useful for student research, bodies must not have muscle atrophy, potentially carry contagious diseases or have an unusual height-weight proportion. Funeral homes, however, often render the body unusable by waiting longer than the required 10 days to contact the school, Carmichael said.
“Most of them have been dead too long before the funeral homes bother to call us,” Carmichael said.
The Mortuary and Cemetery Board’s $461 reimbursement limit was based on figures kept before the new law went into effect. Prior to the law, the Oregon Health Authority oversaw the indigent fund.
“We were conservative when we first started because this was a new program we were running,” Casey said. “In the next couple years, I see that reimbursement rate rising.”
Like many who die alone and without money, Alcantara was homeless for a few years while living out of a van in Los Angeles. Regardless of the expense and the bureaucracy, he sees value in performing the cremations.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re homeless and on the street. It’s a human being,” Alcantara said. “I’ve been there, done that. I can see the humanity behind it.”