Salt Lake County needs more money to cremate people who can’t pay for funerals

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City Cemetery on April 13, 2018. Salt Lake County had budgeted $100,000 for indigent funeral costs this year but has almost exhausted those funds after shelling out $550 each for the cremation of 180 people.

The number of deceased individuals who have no locatable kin or whose surviving family members are too poor to pay for their funeral is growing in Salt Lake County — nearly outpacing the funding the health department set aside.

And with more deaths expected in the cold winter months to come, the County Council on Tuesday voted to move an extra $40,000 into its fund to help the department get through the rest of the year.

The county had budgeted $100,000 for these indigent funeral costs this year but has almost exhausted those funds after shelling out $550 each for the cremation of 180 people.

Health officials aren’t sure what’s causing the spike in indigent deaths, which are up from about four a week in 2018 to five a week earlier this year and now to six a week over the past three months.

“Whether it’s economic factors that have increased from last year or if we have more population in Salt Lake County this year than last that have no known next of kin, we can’t say yet,” said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the county health department. “We just don’t know.”

Typically, about 50% of the indigent cremations the county provides funding for each year have no known next of kin and no resources to pay for their final rites, Rupp said. The other half have family who either cannot or choose not to dispose of their loved ones’ remains.

Use of Salt Lake County’s indigent burial fund is a “last resort,” according to county policy. The governmental body only pays for cremation (unless the indigent person is a victim of a homicide, in which case the county may provide for burial) and families are required to fill out a form detailing their assets, including savings accounts and life insurance policies, to prove they qualify for aid.

The health department has contracted since last spring with Wiscombe Memorial, a Salt Lake City funeral home, to provide these cremations — and each one represents an economic deficit of about $300 for the funeral home compared to the actual cost for service.

That’s a loss Shawn Wiscombe, the company’s owner, said he’s willing to incur.

“I just believe that everybody needs to be cared for with the most dignity you possibly can,” he said, noting that he has a “tender spot” for those who don’t have the financial means to bury their family members.

The mortuary keeps unclaimed ashes until a legal next of kin comes to make a claim on them. If no one does, the funeral home will inter them in a communal grave, usually after a few years and once the contract period for holding them is over.

Funeral costs can range widely, from around $1,000 for a direct disposition to as much as $5,000 for a full-service funeral for an adult, according to Wiscombe Memorial’s website. That price includes the purchase of a casket, embalming, use of the facility for the ceremony and a hearse.

Even the lowest funeral costs can pose challenges for a large chunk of Americans, 40% of whom wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit card they could swiftly pay off, according to a Federal Reserve survey on the economic well-being of U.S. households released earlier this year.