SALISBURY, Md. (AP) — Behind the Arby’s in Salisbury is a graveyard, a quiet field where the brown grass crunches underfoot and baby cactuses grow beside fading markers.
The graveyard was once used as the city’s Potters Field. The penniless were buried there, as were about 50 Union soldiers from Massachusetts, an unlucky group who are believed to have contracted typhoid fever or black measles while stationed at Camp Upton during the Civil War, said George Chevallier, president of the Wicomico County Historical Society.
It’s impossible to tell that paupers are buried in the field, as the surviving tombstones are from those who could afford a burial.
It’s also impossible to tell that just next door, across Commerce Street in Houston Cemetery, many slaves of the Huston Family, an inhabitant of Poplar Hill Mansion, are said to be buried without markers.
Salisbury’s paupers, if they ever did receive a marker, don’t have one now.
In Maryland and Delaware, and across the United States, people continue to die without enough money to pay for their burials. The federal government provides no burial assistance — and it’s up to either the states or local governments to bury America’s poor.
“My heart reaches out to the families. (In) this economic situation, people are not prepared for it,” said Hari P. Close,
president of the Maryland state Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors and owner of Hari P. Close Funeral Service PA.
Maryland and Delaware handle indigent burials, although they do so differently.
Since 1949, the Maryland state Anatomy Board has been responsible for taking ownership of any body to be buried at the
public’s expense, said Ronn Wade, the board’s director. This ranges from homeless people to families with no money.
The Anatomy Board — which also receives bodies from people donating their remains to science — uses the cadavers for research, he said. After a 72-hour waiting period, the Anatomy Board takes the body and later cremates it. Once a year, on the third Monday of June, all the ashes are buried in a big ceremony at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.
In Delaware, the Division of Social Services administers the Indigent Burial Program. State law prohibits cremation, so corpses are placed in a particle-board pine box and interned at a cemetery in one of the state’s three counties, said Dana Mohr, a DSS facilities manager who oversees the program.
In Sussex County, the burials are at the Stockley Center in Georgetown.
The average burial cost is $1,350, Mohr said. Delaware’s indigent burials jumped from 80 in 2008, which was before the
national recession, to a record high of 90 burials last year. The state is expecting similar numbers this year, if not slightly
higher, and Mohr attributes that to the economy.
“Before, two years ago, I’d have more families say, `Absolutely not, my sister’s not getting buried in a potter’s field,”‘ Mohr
Mohr said the DSS would save money and space if it had the option of cremating bodies. Last year, a bill on that subject
failed to make it out of committee, said Jay Lynch, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. He said lawmakers expressed concern over the religious implications — as Jewish law forbids cremation — and the legal implications, as police can’t exhume cremated remains for investigations.
For families with little money but a strong desire to avoid a pauper’s funeral for their loved ones, there is modest burial
Wicomico County provides $400 in burial assistance for an indigent funeral, said county spokesman Jim Fineran. The county budgeted $2,000 for the fund this year, but has spent $4,800.
That’s the difference between five funerals and 12, Fineran said.
Maryland’s Department of Social Services also provides up to $650 in burial assistance when funeral expenses are less than $1,500. The deceased individual must meet specific guidelines of state assistance to qualify.
John Holloway, president and co-owner of Holloway Funeral Home in Salisbury, said his funeral home is willing to work with families who are short on money. He said the average funeral costs at least $7,000, which doesn’t include the expense of a cemetery plot.
Holloway said even families who can afford burials are scaling back on funeral services.
“People say to me `You’re in a recession-proof business.’ Well, not really,” Holloway said.
Wade, of the Maryland Anatomy Board, said he’s helping funeral homes with another problem: taking ownership of all the unclaimed cremains sitting on their shelves.
Close, of the state Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors, said this happens when a family pays for a cremation but never comes to pick up the ashes in the urn.
“You can go to any funeral home and they’ll say we have cremains. We have to keep them because there is nothing in the
statute that says we can discard them,” Close said.
The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)