Tough economy leaves bodies unburied

Rebekah Maple

Law places responsibility on city to pay for unclaimed, indigent bodies

Among the many things Portage County residents pay for, one may not be so obvious – deceased strangers.

Under the Ohio Revised Code, a law gives townships and municipalities the responsibility of disposing of unclaimed and indigent bodies. The general fund, which is the main fund for county government, holds most tax revenue and is used to pay for the cremation or burial of bodies that have not been claimed.

Kent Health Commissioner John Ferlito budgets $3,000 from the general fund for this purpose each year. He said when an unclaimed Kent resident dies, he takes care of disposing it as inexpensively as possible.

Ferlito works with Bissler & Sons Funeral Home and Crematory on West Main Street in Kent. He said they do a nice job that’s relatively inexpensive. The average cost of cremating a body is $1,000.

While it’s not common to encounter unclaimed bodies, Ferlito said last year he had to dispose of three, which used all the money he budgeted that year.

“Last year scared me,” he said. “Usually I see one every other year, so that was unusual.”

Ferlito said the high number in 2008 could have been a result of tough economic times. Not only is the township or municipality responsible for disposing of unclaimed bodies, but also ones that are indigent. In other words, if no family members can afford to dispose of the body, they don’t have a legal obligation to.

“Lately I’ve had relatives, usually cousins or aunts and uncles, saying they have no legal responsibility,” Ferlito said. “To sum it up, no can pay to bury this body.”

In Franklin Township, the system works a little differently. Township administrator Ken Penix said the funeral home notifies him when a body is found, and then he verifies that the person was indeed a resident and indigent.

A person must have died in that township or have been a resident for at least one year in order for the disposal to be paid for.

Suzanne Lucas, Franklin Township fiscal officer, then writes a check to the funeral home using money from the general fund and has two of the three township trustees sign off on the payment.

Penix said he limits payments to $900 per body. Franklin Township had one unclaimed body in 2004 and then another in 2009.

Sometimes the coroner comes across bodies that no one can claim or pay for. Wayne Enders, administrator and assistant for the Portage County coroner, said in coroner cases, if there’s no family, he calls the city where the person died or resides.

He said that of the approximately 850 deaths per year, 250 of them go to the coroner. The coroner is responsible for ruling on deaths that are sudden and unexpected and the person was in apparently good health.

Enders said the coroner’s office might not know of many unclaimed bodies because it is already being taken care of by the township or municipality. He did encounter a body in 2006 when a man died in a nursing facility and had no family. In that case, the coroner’s office turned it over to the city.

Portage County coroner Roger Marcial investigates the suspicious cases and then takes care of it accordingly.

“If there’s anyone found and unclaimed, we’re going to make sure that there’s no foul play,” Marcial said. “If there are no relatives or foul play, it’s buried or cremated.”

Contact public affairs reporter Rebekah Maple at [email protected].