Citizens for a Dignified Burial — an ad hoc coalition that includes several Catholic leaders — wants Monroe County to restore a cut made to public-assistance funding for funerals and burials or cremations of indigent residents.
Joseph Martino, deputy commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Human Services, said county officials have no plans to rescind the cut. Nonetheless, he noted that he and other county officials and coalition members are jointly pursuing alternative ways to fund funerals for the poor.
According to Martino, a deceased person’s legally responsible relatives — a spouse, or the parents or guardians of a minor — are eligible for a supplemental funeral-assistance grant if the deceased was eligible for public assistance; left no funds or insurance to fully pay for a funeral and/or burial; and the legally responsible relatives also are eligible for public assistance,
Under the county’s former policy, Martino said, the county would cover an average of $1,850 toward funeral costs, including burial or cremation. As of March 1, the county provides supplemental funeral-assistance grants of $500 for children from the ages of 20 weeks to 5 years, and up to $1,250 for people age 6 and up, he said.
Martino said some grant recipients abused the former policy, declining to solicit funds from relatives who could have contributed toward funeral costs. He also noted that the former policy limited to a total of $1,500 the value of funeral costs that could be contributed by relatives and friends, but that the new policy does not impose any such restriction.
Martino said the grant reduction will save the county an estimated $300,000 in 2006 — a significant savings, given that 99 percent of the county’s human-services budget is allocated to mandated services, leaving little room for cost-cutting. He added that every dollar saved on funeral expenses can be used for other services, including child-abuse prevention.
Yet Father Laurence Tracy, outreach minister to Rochester’s Hispanic community, said poor people “were left hanging” by the county’s decision to cut the funeral grant. He said he knew of at least one family that felt forced by the new policy to choose cremation over burial due to financial concerns. He said that at least three other families he knew had to solicit contributions from churches in order to pay for funeral expenses.
Sister of Mercy Gratia L’Esperance, a member of Citizens for a Dignified Burial, said cremation goes against the tradition of many ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, whose members have been affected by the county’s policy. And Catholics have only recently accepted the practice, she added.
“I understand the county’s need to look at the budget deficit and see where it can save,” Sister L’Esperance said. “But the budget is a moral document and can be judged on how it deals with the poor.”
Father Tracy said the family of 2-year-old Lashawn Dunbar, who died in May, was able to avoid cremation because Hispanic parishioners at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Woodward Street helped raise money to pay for a burial.
“Inner-city churches are being asked for money for burials but they can’t afford it,” Father Tracy said. “They can’t do that all the time.”
Citizens for a Dignified Burial includes representatives of various inner-city churches as well as Catholic Family Center; the Catholic Worker shelter St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality; and the House of Mercy, which is directed by Sister of Mercy Grace Miller.
During a meeting at Peace Baptist Church in Rochester May 26, coalition members debated the funeral-grant cut with Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks. Brooks defended the cut, noting that Monroe County still gives a generous funeral grant when compared to the funding provided by other counties. She noted, for example, that Erie County only provides $900 in funeral assistance.
Brooks added that she also must contend with meeting the social-service needs of other groups, not just the relatives of those who have died without means to pay for burial.
“I know every different choice impacts a different group in this county,” she said.
In a follow-up interview, Sister Miller said she disagreed with Brooks’ contention, saying burying the poor is a county responsibility.
“It should remain a county responsibility,” Sister Miller said. “It’s a terrible injustice to hit people like that when grieving.”
Monroe County Legislator Jose Cruz, D-29th district, said he had developed a proposal to rescind the funding cut and create a task force to study the problem. Normally, such a proposal — called a referral — would have gone to a legislative committee, but Cruz said the proposal is being held up by the legislature’s president, Wayne Zyra. Saying he finds the explanation “a little odd,” Cruz said Zyra is holding up the proposal because some information is missing. Zyra did not return a call for comment.
“We’re forcing people to make decisions about final arrangements for family members that they don’t want to make,” Cruz said. “It was tough enough every time (such families) would have to bury someone and scrimp around for $300 or $400. Now they have to scrimp around for $1,000. That’s a lot of money.”
Coalition members say they are fighting for people like Rosemarie Martin of Rochester, whose aunt died April 17. Martin said she still can’t get over the fact that her cousin was forced to cremate his mother because the family could not afford to pay for burial.
“It’s a dirty shame before God,” Martin said. “She deserved calling hours to be laid out and buried decent.”
Father Tracy and Martino said the coalition and county are discussing solutions to the problems of financing burials for poor people. Among the possible solutions are asking area funeral homes to occasionally provide pro-bono services; conducting calling hours in churches; and seeking financial assistance from not-for-profit organizations and other groups.
“We want to seek out creative ideas to come up with a community solution,” Martino said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Monroe County’s supplemental funeral-assistance program, call Larry Bloom in the Funeral Assistance Unit at 585/753-6890. Relatives of the deceased should call the county before signing any contracts with a funeral home.