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More bodies go unclaimed as families can't afford funeral costs

The weak economy is taking its toll, with an increasing number of bodies in Los Angeles County being cremated at taxpayers' expense.

July 21, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 23, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Unclaimed bodies: An article in Tuesday's Section A about how the number of unclaimed bodies increases in Los Angeles County as more families are unable to afford funeral costs misidentified the National Funeral Directors Assn. as the National Funeral Home Directors Assn.

"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."

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