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 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.
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.