Local News

The loneliest funerals

Andrea Ball's brother Andy died in January. "He was a wonderful person. If you called him at 4 a.m. and needed a ride, he would be there. He took care of my son for me when I had to work. He was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back," Ball said. He grew up in Sebring and had many jobs, but his most rewarding was at Epcot at Disney. Andy fell on tough times, though, after his divorce and wandered through the rest of his life. In his sister's opinion, he was a little lost. Andy left three small sons, whom his sister said he loved "more than life itself."
But what happens when people like Andy die and don't even leave enough money to pay for their own funeral? "Counties are charged with the burial of unclaimed or indigent bodies." That's public health law, said Chris Benson, community services manager for Highlands County, enacted by Florida so that corpses are properly disposed. Indigent deaths have happened 38 times so far this fiscal year in Highlands County. County commissioners budgeted $28,922 for burials, and when that was exhausted, they kicked in another $15,200. The county pays $633 for cremation, $1,588 for an adult burial and $2,026 to bury an oversized person. The county paid $842, and then $1,233 to bury two children. v v When the deceased leaves no house, no car, no bank account, the county pays the funeral home. When Stephenson-Nelson billed the county $689.33 for a June 3 burial, the invoice to Ruth Colman at Highlands County Human Services told the meager story: $295 for equipment and overhead, $67 to transfer the remains, $72 for mileage, $40 for a cardboard cremation container, $67 for refrigeration and $147 for cremation. Michael A. Brochetti Funeral Home isn't on the list of seven funeral homes that rotate the duty, but when an indigent death occurs in Lake Placid and the family calls, he doesn't refuse. And in a town the size of Lake Placid, he knows almost everyone. Sometimes a family will contact the funeral home first. "They don't know about the county until we tell them," Brochetti said, "but trying to get county to pay is very difficult." If the deceased had a few assets, the family is expected to pay. "A lot don't become county cases," Brochetti said. "So we tell them yes, the funeral home will assist on this. It's kind of hard, I tell them, 'This is what I can do it for.'" When the county pays, there is no embalming. "The law says you don't have to embalm if you're not going to expose the remains to the public," Brochetti said. Brochetti is reimbursed for the casket and vault. "I don't lose any money," he said. "When I got into this business years ago, it was to help people." "I have to be very honest with them, 'This is what it costs to open to and close the grave. It costs such and such for a vault. I have a casket I use for indigent cases. It costs me $385.' A lot of funeral homes won't do that. Most of them are corporate." Brochetti buries five or six indigents a year, but he's leery about cremating. "It's such a touchy thing under Florida law. If you are going to cremate, you have to have approval from next of kin." he said. "That's the spouse, then children, then siblings, then nieces or nephews, then cousins. v v Even if there is a family, there is no court-paid funeral service. "No visitations. Nothing. (The county's view) is, if you can afford a service, you don't need our help. That's hard on them, when you tell them they can't have a service. That's cold." "I did not have a good experience with it," Ball emailed Highlands Today about her brother's burial. She did not say which funeral home handled the arrangements. Brochetti informs the family about the time of burial so they can take a few last moments with their loved one. "We meet at the cemetery. We don't need a police escort. I give family time to have a little bit of closure. It's not a big deal. I do what's right. If it was my father or mother, I would expect the same courtesy." Paupers are buried at Pinecrest, Benson said. "I think Pinecrest is the only one that still does that," Brochetti said. For the elderly and people without cars, a 35-mile round trip to Pinecrest is a problem. Occasionally, Brochetti will bury a John Doe or an indigent child. "I charge nothing at all. I do incur expenses, but I'll pay out of my own pocket." Sometimes, when the medical examiner is ready to release the body, there's no one to claim it. "I've seen two since I've been in Lake Placid." Brochetti said. "They pretty much exhaust all leads to find a family member. Maybe it's just a hobo living on the streets. No ID or nothing." And if there is no one to attend the burial, Brochetti calls a deputy to stand at the interment. The man who opens and closes the grave is also present. Those three say a final goodbye to John Doe. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5828