The number of “pauper cremations”—or cremations of unclaimed bodies at the coroner’s office—is on track to be the highest since East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark took office in 2012.
The coroner’s office has cremated 35 unclaimed bodies so far this year, and Chief Investigator Shane Evans, with the department since 2012, expects that number to surpass last year’s 81.
“Inexplicably, starting after Halloween through Christmas, we’re slammed,” Evans says. “There’s definitely an ebb and flow to it.”
What’s happening in Baton Rouge mirrors a national trend, as the rising cost of a private burial—which now averages some $7,000—is proving too expensive for a growing number of families.
It costs the coroner’s office $421 for a pauper cremation, says Evans, as it’s against state law for a funeral home to charge more than the “actual cost” for the cremation. The office’s general operating fund covers the costs, but there’s no specific budget allotted to handle the bodies.
Because they’ve been able to predict revenues and change the budget as needed, Evans says the cremations haven’t been a financial burden on the department, although other municipalities and counties around the country have not been so lucky..
The St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office had to add mobile refrigerated trailers in 2017 to hold all its bodies, Governing reports, and the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner briefly lost accreditation in 2017 because it ran out of storage space.
A growing transient population in the parish is one contributor to the growing cremation rate, says Evans, as well as economic factors. Providing a proper funeral and burial have become, for many people, a luxury during a time when, according to the Federal Reserve, 40% of Americans can’t even afford an unexpected expense of just $400.
The millennials’ flight out of Louisiana and “career jumping” can also be blamed for increasing rates, Evans says. Posing a scenario where a 65-year-old man with four sons who all moved out of state, Evans asks: “Is a son living in Chicago going to want to bury his dad here or take him with him?”
Overall, the largest burden the unclaimed bodies pose is administrative.
“We work to be very, very doggone sure the family knows about the death,” Evans says. “Last thing we want is to cremate a person and have a service with just our staff, when there’s a family out there wondering about what happened to them.”