For three years, the group Citizens for a Dignified Burial has successfully worked behind the scenes to ensure that impoverished families are not forced to cremate their loved ones because they cannot afford burial.
In 2006, Monroe County reduced allocations for the funeral and burial expenses of an indigent person from $1,850 to $1,250. Citizens for a Dignified Burial, an ad hoc coalition that includes several Catholic community leaders, formed in response to advocate for the needs of the poor and sought a reversal of the policy. While that did not happen, coalition members say they are satisfied with the county’s response in hiring a burial coordinator and working with families on a case-by-case basis.
"In a way, the coalition got what it wanted," said Marvin Mich, Catholic Family Center’s director of social policy and research and a member of Citizens for a Dignified Burial. "And the county got what it wanted by not changing its basic policy."
Shirl Clark, burial coordinator for the county’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI), deals personally with the families and area funeral directors to find a balance between county policy and a family’s situation, said Mich, who also is chairman of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches.
"By having a dedicated person to do that (coordination), it has opened up many other opportunities to find ways to help," said Mel Walczak, FBCI’s outgoing director who was replaced last month by James Roose.
Those opportunities have included reaching out to families’ faith communities to help with costs as well as working directly with funeral directors to reduce costs whenever possible, Walczak added. The county also has monies available in a community burial fund, but it does not actively solicit donations because of additional resources that would be required to maintain such a fund, Walczak noted.
"Shirl spends time working with families, trying to determine all their needs and find ways to make sure those needs are met," he remarked. "In some instances, (meeting those needs) requires a combination of a variety of things."
When the county first reduced its allocation by $600, however, many families were forced to choose the less expensive option of cremation, explained Sister of Mercy Grace Miller, director of Rochester’s House of Mercy. With average minimum burial costs at about $2,700, she noted, some families could not raise the funds. Thus many ethnic families — African-American, Hispanic and Native American — were forced to accept an option that went against their faith traditions, coalition members said.
"It’s been so agonizing for them," said Sister Miller, who has worked with many families that were affected by the policy.
Mich and Sister Miller said that the coalition will continue meeting periodically with county officials to monitor how indigent families are treated. But the flexibility demonstrated by the county’s burial coordinator has alleviated a lot of the suffering for these families in the midst of their grief, Sister Miller said.
"They experience joy," she said of many of the families that have been able arrange burials for their loved ones instead of cremation. "It lifts their burden tremendously."
That is why the coalition must remain as a watchdog for the poor, Sister Miller added.
"If we remembered the poor, more people would be blessed," she said. "We need to keep on top of this so people are treated justly and fairly. Poor people should have options just as much as everybody else."