A bill awaiting the governor’s approval could bring some changes to Forsyth County’s policy on indigent funerals.
Senate Bill 83, authored by District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch allows counties to opt for a cremation instead of a burial for deceased people whose family members can’t be found or afford a funeral.
Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega whose district includes some of north Forsyth, said he wrote the bill because he thinks “it will save a lot of taxpayer money.”
“We would always try to be respectful to the families,” Gooch said. “The discretion is at the county level. The county can set a policy as for how much they can pay.”
Forsyth has a policy on the issue. In 2000, the county adopted procedures for providing assistance to those surviving family members who couldn’t afford funeral expenses, as well as for those deceased who had no available next of kin.
The county provides up to $1,250 to pay for a burial or cremation and the choice between the two is up to the family.
Donna Kukarola, the county’s procurement director, said there have been a handful of cases over the past 13 years where family members couldn’t be found or identified.
The county covered the cost of the $1,250 burial and a plot, which has run as much as $1,850 in the past.
While cremation would have cost about half as much as burial, that wasn’t an option for Forsyth or any county governments.
“We will not do a cremation if no one authorizes it,” Kukarola said, adding the proposed change could have the county revisit its entire indigent burial policy.
“We might be looking at this in the near future,” she said. “I think it will be a good thing for us to look at.”
Both Lauren McDonald of McDonald & Son Funeral Home and Crematory and Marty Byars of Byars Funeral Home & Cremation Services, both in Cumming, commended the Georgia General Assembly for passing the bill.
“It’s a great option,” McDonald said. “When a loved one cannot be located ... the county has to make a decision on what to do about the person’s demise.
“Even what’s given to a funeral home from the county doesn’t come near the cost of covering a burial.”
McDonald said he often donates the additional services needed for those cases of indigent burials because “we want to take care of families.”
Byars called the county’s contribution generous, but “it’s really not a whole lot” when it comes down to the overall cost of a funeral.
“[The] $1,250 won’t even pay for the cost of a casket,” he said. “All we’re doing here is we’re here to help the families and do the best we can with it.”
Representatives of Ingram Funeral Home in Cumming could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The bill would allow a county to pay for cremations instead of burials, but Kukarola said Forsyth could look at other revisions when updating its policy if Gov. Nathan Deal approves the measure.
According to Kukarola, another possibility could involve capping the amount Forsyth would contribute toward gravesites, which the county pays if family members ask for a burial but can’t afford a plot.
Between land donations and family contributions, she said that scenario doesn’t occur often. Still, having a cap could be a good idea.
McDonald noted the cost of a funeral has risen since the local policy was adopted.
The number of indigent funerals has also increased. In 2000, there was one. The next year, there were two. The numbers rose and fell up until 2009, when Kukarola said they increased significantly.
“It’s a sign of the economy,” she said. “We’ve had a higher population, the [sluggish] economy and we also have hospice homes within the county now.”
In 2009, there were 18 requests and by 2012 there were 34. Kukarola has had seven so far this year.
While her office handles the costs for the services, the Forsyth County Department of Family and Children’s Services oversees the application process for indigent families.
According to Kukarola, that involves a confidential questionnaire to determine whether they have assets.
On average, more than half of the families the county helps with funeral costs opt for a cremation, including 26 of the 35 funerals in 2011 and 13 of the 22 in 2010.
While the county may make some tweaks, Kukarola expects indigent families would still get to choose between burial and cremation, which certain religions don’t permit, for a loved one.
“Many folks opt for cremation now ... at this point, they can opt for it or not. It’s not mandated by any means,” she said. “It would probably continue that way.”