Last rights

The governor doesn’t want to pay to bury the poor

Balancing a budget on the backs of poor people who are on their backs seems cold even for a member of the New Republican Party. In early April, Mr. Bruce Rauner suspended reimbursements paid by the state to funeral homes that bury dead public-aid recipients. The current reimbursements (up to $1,103 in funeral expenses and $552 in cemetery costs) provide neither lavish services to families or profits to undertakers, but since 8,000 to 10,000 Illinoisans are thus put away each year, the annual cost adds up to $10 or $11 million.

The cost of funerals have risen much faster than have incomes of even the working poor. I make a modest income, but I worry less about how to get into heaven when I die than how to get into the ground. Families of public aid recipients are seldom much better off than their dead kin in such cases. In the past, churches, ethnic mutual aid societies and similar benevolent organizations performed such services to members (and thus to their families) but the indigent burial allowance, like so many of the state safety net programs, was instituted to help families for whom state government was the only institution on which they had a claim.

Rauner plans to eliminate the program altogether in next year’s budget. He offered no rationale. Fiscal prudence does not explain it; cutting a few million dollars when the deficit is in the thousands of millions is more a symbolic saving than an actual one. He did say to the Tribune that “we have a moral duty to have an efficient government.” I agree, but that is only one of the several moral duties that press upon public leaders, and not necessarily the most compelling one.

Whatever the motive, the payments freeze looks a lot like the business practices of the chief executive’s firms. It saves the state government money by passing off costs and responsibility to others. County morgues (and not all counties have morgues) that  have space to store stiffs will have to pay to do it longer; Cook County has dozens at any one time, many of whom languish there for half a year.

What’s a poor state to do? Some states used to send corpses to medical colleges for dissection; unfortunately, medical schools for years have been phasing out dissection as a means of teaching basic anatomy and relying instead on new imaging technologies. Some private firms that accept a corpse to harvest saleable body parts from it pay for the disposal of the leftovers, but few people at the ends of their tethers have made provision for the ends of their lives.

The problem is likely to get worse. More people in jail means more people dying in jail, unwanted. Because people have been having fewer children, they are left with fewer survivors to pay for funerals. Stingy government payments for long-term care  means that the savings of millions of boomers will be sucked dry by the time they die to pay nursing home bills.

In line with the national trend toward what Stephen Colbert might have called Scrooginess, Illinois might have to revert to an older model for the disposition of the unwanted dead. Until well into this century they were usually dumped into waste land, such as the excavated remains of clay pits mined by potters – hence “potter’s fields.” These pauper burial grounds were in effect town dumps in which the buried were stacked atop each other, usually in unmarked graves. According to Christian legend, the first potter’s field was purchased using gold taken by Judas to betray Christ; the field was used as a burial ground for foreigners whose presence would contaminate sanctified Jewish burial grounds. That makes them fitting places for the poor, excommunicants from the church of the dollar. It is more likely that the indolent dead will be consigned to the flames in the crematorium long before they face them in hell, it being cheaper than burial.

Looked at a certain way – say, by peering at it through the pages of the Wall Street Journal editorial page – providing free burials for the unknown, the abandoned, the unwanted is a wasteful poverty perk. A Springfield funeral home director told the Journal-Register that families of public aid recipients are usually able to come up with something “when push comes to shove.” True. When push comes to shove, the very poor amongst us can feed themselves out of garbage cans, but do we really want to be the kind of people who demand that they do it?

While we ponder that question, we can reflect on the fact that the State of Illinois has been driven to such hard economies because for decades it handled its money in the same improvident way that poor families do. You’d think its leaders would have a little sympathy.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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