Pauper claims stir debate

12:36 pm | March 25, 2013

It’s a question most never think to ask:

What happens to the poor after they die?

Nationally, pauper, or indigent, burials are on the rise. Many blame the weakened economy as a factor, saying that fewer people can afford things like life insurance, automobiles, or property.

For nearly two years, it has been official policy in Carter County to cover the costs of handling the remains of the poor or indigent – which usually means cremation.

Recently, however, the county’s policy has come under scrutiny as the number of pauper claims has increased to three times the county’s average.

With nine pauper burials since the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, 2012, and each burial costing $600, the county has spent a total of $5,400 on cremating the county’s poor.

In contrast, Johnson County’s most recent pauper burial took place more than two years ago.

Some in Carter County government have said they are concerned that some may be taking advantage of the system. County Commission Chairman Tom Bowers, who has been one of the more vocal opponents of the county’s policy, said that he fears that the county’s current background checks are not sufficient.

“It’s not that I don’t like the policy, or am against helping someone out,” Bowers said. “But it has been abused. The backgrounds are not being checked into at the extent they should be.”

According to County Mayor Leon Humphrey, the current policy was created specifically to verify a claimant’s pauper status.

“When I came into office, there was no formal policy for pauper burial,” Humphrey said. “I felt the need to draft a formal policy with some steps and procedures so that we could verify the actual financial abilities of any surviving family members, or the person in question.”

That verification is conducted by Humphrey’s office, upon receipt of an application for pauper/indigent status. These applications can come from several sources, but, primarily, they come from the county coroner or a funeral home.

Joe Taylor, a manager at Tetrick Funeral Home, said that, after presenting options to impoverished clients, they are then advised to seek assistance from the county.

“If we had a family come in, and they said they had no money, then I would ask if they had a car, or property, or something of value that they could turn into money,” Taylor said. “If they say no, then we’ll direct them to the county.”

If there are no surviving family members, and the deceased had no assets, Humphrey said the county medical examiner authorizes the pauper’s burial.

Once the application is complete, its next stop is Humphrey’s office.

“The county mayor then verifies through the assessor’s office, or the county clerk’s office, if they did, in fact, have any real property of record, namely automobiles,” Humphrey said. “If they (do), then we reject the application. If they don’t have any of those possessions, normally I will go ahead and authorize it.”

While Humphrey said there are several sources of information available to him, he added that other sources are more difficult to attain.

“There are limits to how much information we can access,” Humphrey said. “Bank accounts and the like, it’s hard to get that information. But I don’t think the policy is unreasonable.”

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