Indigent burial program may see more action amid opioid epidemic, COVID-19 pandemic

Laurel Medical Center, Ankith Deekollu
Posted at 7:26 AM, Jan 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-04 07:26:14-05

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on under a content-sharing agreement.

A state program to help those who can’t afford to bury their loved ones might see more action than usual, and cause the need for re-education for townships that have to pay for these burials.

The Indigent Burial and Cremation program works with townships and municipalities to reimburse some of the costs of funeral disposition. When a resident is found to fall below the federal poverty line, Ohio law requires that a local government pay for the burial or cremation.

But local government officials have said the program wasn’t used often in its last version, nearly two decades ago.

More recently, however, several townships have called the state’s Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors to get information about the program, and there are currently 450 applications being processed, according to Cheryl Grossman, the board’s executive director.

“We look for that number to grow dramatically,” Grossman said.

While a death certificate isn’t required with the application for funding reimbursement, Grossman and others have said the ongoing opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic could cause the program to have increased use.

“The opioid crisis is not going away and in some places it’s only being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis,” said Heidi Fought, executive director of the Ohio Township Association.

The program was a part of the budget more than a decade ago, but budget cuts led to the elimination of it until the last budget bill, passed in July of 2019.

The new budget line item moved the program from the state Department of Job and Family Services to the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors and allowed the reimbursement of a total of $2 million.

Under the new version of the program, a township can get reimbursed for up to $1,000 in burial or cremation expenses for an adult, and up to $750 for a child. Those numbers are a slight increase from the previous program, where reimbursements were set at $750 for an adult and $500 for a child.

The Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors seems to be the only state agency with information on the program. Representatives from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the Department of Health, the Office of Budget and Management and the Auditor of State all referred questions about the use and payment of the program to the board.

“While the local governments in the Southeast Region receive some funding, it is usually sporadic and nominal,” said Denise A. Blair, assistant chief auditor in the Southeast Region for the Auditor of State. “It would not rise to the level of materiality that would be included in our scope.”

The OTA specifically lobbied to bring back the funding for the indigent burial program in the last budget, despite the rarity of a cut program returning to the state budget.

“The fact that it did come back does show that the need is there,” Fought said.

The need to re-educate townships on the existence of the program and how to be reimbursed for it is also there, because of the turnover over of local officials in the period between the program’s existence, according to Fought.

Only local government representatives can apply for the reimbursement, so individuals have to go through those government officials to get help with their funeral disposition.

The Ohio Township Association says the push to increase the program’s funding will continue, especially considering local governments are required to pay for indigent burials whether or not there is money in the program’s coffers to reimburse them.

“A local government entity must carry out this duty even if funds are no longer available through the program,” according to the embalming and funeral directors board page on the program.

The program is needed as a state program because poverty does not focus on one particular county, nor does the need for burials or cremations.

“Indigency knows no boundaries,” said Fought. “They’re in central Ohio or Cleveland or Cincinnati, they’re everywhere.”