What happens when life ends for someone with no family or means?

02/04/2016 6:00 AM |

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Toward the end of December, Doug Mathie received a call about an elderly woman who had died in hospice.

Mr. Mathie, funeral director at Horton-Mathie Funeral Home on Main Street in Greenport, picked up the woman’s remains and set about preparing for her services. But he ran into a problem: The woman, whose identity he did not disclose, had no money or personal assets, nor could he locate any family members to help defray the cost of laying her to rest.

So Mr. Mathie and Suffolk County teamed up to pay for cremation, per the woman’s wishes, then passed her remains on to a friend. The funeral home took a loss on the case, but Mr. Mathie felt it important to respect the woman’s dignity regardless of her status.

“It’s very surreal when someone lives to a very old age and they die and there’s nobody in their inner circle,” he said. “It’s sad to see. As a caretaker of the deceased, it’s an honor, in a way, to take care of somebody and to give them a funeral.”

It’s not uncommon for an individual to die with neither financial assets nor next of kin to help pay for a funeral. And although the county offers some funding, several North Fork funeral directors say they almost always take a financial hit when handling these situations.

But they still do it willingly.

“Everyone’s entitled to a funeral,” Mr. Mathie said. “We don’t do this for cost-effectiveness. We do this to make it happen for a person who doesn’t have the funds.”

Suffolk County has a framework in place to assist in giving people some sort of final rest, even if the services are limited. Getting to that point, however, requires several weeks of legwork to ensure the aid is actually needed.

When a death occurs it is initially processed through the county medical examiner’s office, where circumstances of death are determined and officials attempt to figure out what comes next. If any family exists, they are contacted; if a will was written, that is referenced.

If the ME’s search turns up nothing, the case goes to the county public administrator, who performs his own search for relatives and documentation. If that search yields no possible form of payment for a funeral — say, the deceased’s savings account or a child willing to foot the bill — then the county Department of Social Services can assist.

“If the body ends up with the ME and nobody comes in to claim it and they can’t locate anybody, they contact us,” said Franklyn Farris, Suffolk County’s public administrator. “We try to locate somebody, and if we can’t find anyone to step up or locate any funds, we go to DSS, they pick out the funeral home and we authorize them to do it.”

With the public administrator’s authorization, DSS can give up to $1,200 to any funeral home willing to take on such a job, often called a “welfare case” or a “DSS case.” The guidelines are strict: only a simple cloth-covered casket, short visiting hours and so on. (If they wish, family members can also contribute up to $1,200 of their own to add services.)

Once a funeral home accepts a case, it must handle the rest of the process — from embalming to burial — on its own. Here on the North Fork, which is generally affluent compared to the rest of Suffolk County, any given funeral home could encounter a half-dozen such scenarios a year.

However, the average cost of even the simplest service and burial in the area can range from $2,300 to $3,500, according to a number of funeral directors. So whenever a funeral home accepts a DSS case, it does so at a substantial discount.

“If I have to purchase a grave, I’m probably losing $1,000 to $1,500, but it doesn’t hurt you businesswise,” said Joe Grattan, funeral director at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Homes in Mattituck. “It’s sort of an obligation. You have to do something for people.”

Sometimes, that cost is mitigated because a person’s family has already purchased a burial plot. And indigent veterans can be buried at Calverton National Cemetery for free.

Cemeteries are rarely involved in the process, however. Richard Ehlers, superintendent of New Bethany Cemetery in Mattituck, said he never even knows when a person is being buried with a county stipend.

“[A funeral director] will call me up and say, ‘I need a plot for a person,’ ” he said. “He doesn’t tell me whether they’re rich, poor, race, anything.”

Cremation is cheaper — costing roughly $1,600 in a DSS case, according to Mr. Mathie — but under New York State law, funeral directors can only cremate when there is clear evidence that’s what the person wanted.

“Cremation is irreversible,” Mr. Mathie said. “Six months down the line, if a relative steps forward and says, ‘Where’s my loved one?’ and the person’s cremated, there’s a problem. But if the person’s buried in the wrong place, you can always correct the situation.”

The number of funeral homes willing to take on these cases is unclear because no law requires it.

“The funeral homes that will step up and bury indigents, people without funds, for the DSS amount are really providing a public service,” he said. “They’re really losing money, and that’s why there aren’t a lot of funeral homes that do this anymore.”

Mr. Mathie said it’s a mix; after all, anyone who takes on a welfare case essentially loses money. But Mr. Grattan, who has “worked in every funeral home east of Patchogue,” said he has “never heard of any case being turned down.”

Both Mr. Grattan and Mr. Mathie say they accept DSS cases. So, too, does Karen Heppner, funeral director for both Costner-Heppner Funeral Home in Cutchogue and McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead.

“How can you deny somebody a proper burial in the community you live in?” Ms. Heppner said. “How can I say, ‘No, I’m not going to do it for you because you’ve had hard times’?”

Some homes have been doing funerals as a public service for decades. Mr. Grattan remembers his that predecessor, David DeFriest Sr., buried four migrant workers who had died in a fire at the Cutchogue labor camp.

“I can’t say for sure whether he got paid a dime,” he said. “He may have gotten something from social services or from the Department of Welfare, as they called it in those days. What would have happened to them? I don’t really know.”

In some cases, funeral directors must play an additional role: that of final witness to the burial. Traditionally trained to help the grieving put their loved ones to rest, these men and women sometimes become surrogate families, standing in to do whatever they can to make sure everyone’s departure is properly acknowledged.

Mr. Grattan remembers several cases in which he, a clergyman and a gravedigger were the only people present at a burial. Mr. Mathie has also had such experiences, just like his recent “surreal” case.

In one instance about 20 years ago, Mr. Mathie brought a casket to a church for a service and no one came save for the priest and six pallbearers.

“Usually the pallbearers go out for coffee,” he said. “I said to the boys, ‘Sit in church, please.’ So we all sat in the church. We were the family.”

That stuck with him for the better part of two decades. And in the years since, he said, there have been “too many times” when a burial or cremation went unattended. But for many, helping out in those lonely cases is simply the right thing to do — ethically, spiritually and existentially.

“That is my chosen task to do,” Mr. Mathie said. “Here I am; I’m a funeral director. Not everyone goes out with many people surrounding them. When they have nobody, at least we’re there for them.”

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