DETROIT – Forgotten in death or abandoned by loved ones, Dewanda McNeil, Maurice Webber and Alan Jones were laid to rest in pauper's graves, their names left to be recognized by a half-dozen strangers at a service in a small Detroit funeral chapel.
Times are tough for the living in Detroit and unforgiving for dozens — like McNeil, Webber and Jones — dying alone and poor in the economically distressed city. Taxpayers increasingly are paying to dispose of unclaimed bodies in cities and towns throughout the U.S., but the problem appears more acute in Detroit, where nearly a third of working adults are without a job and the poverty rate has reached 33.8 percent.
McNeil, Webber and Jones were recognized at the once-a-month Celebration of Friends service at Perry Funeral Home, started last year by Paul Betts after he heard about the unclaimed dead. Those who attend light candles, say prayers and sing hymns to recognize the deceased.
"We're here to celebrate the fact that they were part of our world. We're just going to say, 'Thank you,"' Betts said during the service for McNeil, Webber, Jones and others.
In Michigan, where the state helps pay for indigent burials, the number of payments has risen throughout the year. From May to June, alone, they soared from 577 to 1,067. In October and November, the state averaged 1,268 payments per month, compared with 637 for those two months last year.
As bagged and tagged bodies pile cold and stiff in the Wayne County medical examiner's two refrigerated storage rooms and one freezer, some next of kin are faced with two options: paying for a funeral out of their pockets or keeping their own families above water.
"People are losing their homes. They can't keep food on the table," said Albert Samuels, medical examiner's chief investigator. "There's no way we can compel somebody to come and bury their loved ones."
About 3,700 corpses each year are wheeled into the medical examiner's office on Detroit's east side. Samuels said between 50 and 60 of the corpses now being stored are unclaimed, about double of any time in 2008. Since the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the morgue has disposed of 27 unclaimed bodies.
"All of last fiscal year we did 30," he said.
Burials for the unclaimed cost $750 each and are done in volume. The state chips in $585 for each one in Wayne County, and getting the money can take weeks or even months as the state goes through its own fiscal crisis. The county has a contract with Perry Funeral Home to handle the bodies.
"In the meantime, those bodies are sitting here," Samuels said. "We can't bury them first and then ask the state."
Detroit isn't alone in the problem. In Milwaukee County, Wis., the medical examiner's office waived $93,210 in fees for indigent burials in 2008 and is on track to waive $120,000 in fees this year, operations manager Karen Domagalski said.
"When we do find family and they are refusing to make burial arrangements, the answer is always that they do not have the money," she said.
In Los Angeles County, Calif., bodies not claimed by next of kin can be cremated after 30 days. The coroner's office cremated 708 bodies last year. This year's total was 711 as of Dec. 17.
Cleveland and other cities in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, foot the bill for indigent cremations and burials, said Alan Clark, coroner's office chief investigator.
"We have one suburb that's all out of money in their budget for indigent funerals," Clark said. "That woman will be here until after the first of the year."
To help with the problem, Wayne County is negotiating to begin cremations and working on a deal to send some bodies to a local mortuary science school to help train students, Samuels said.
Until then, Perry Funeral Home will continue receiving the county's unclaimed, before forwarding them on to Knollwood Memorial Park in Canton Township, about 20 miles west of the city, for no-frills burials.
"We bury four people to a plot, each in his or her box," funeral home operations manager Betsy Deak said. "There is no upright headstone. All they have is a flush marker, usually with numbers or letters on it corresponding with information on who is buried."
Knollwood receives about $325 for each unclaimed burial, compared with $3,000 or more for traditional burials and $800 charged to financially struggling families.
"We're not making any money on it. This is a corporal work of mercy," manager Sam Tocco said.