Finding Potter’s Field: Indigent Burial in the United States

A patron recently called the library to ask what happens when someone dies without means to pay for cremation or burial. In some cases, such a person might have no living relatives. In others, the identity of the deceased is simply unknown.

Here’s what we learned:

In the United Kingdom, such an individual would receive what is still called a “pauper’s funeral,” with costs borne by the local Council. In the U.S., the person may be buried in a “potter’s field,” such as the famous Hart Island in New York. These days, remains are often cataloged so they can be exhumed and buried again by a private setting if relatives or resources are identified.

King County, WA, offers an “Indigent Remains Program.” The dead are cremated and stored, at county expense, until a ceremony and burial can be held for the group. Ceremonies are open to the public and held every two years or so. The October 2016 ceremony honored 278 people. Other counties have their own variants, such as this burial at sea in Pierce County.

While indigent burial can be done compassionately, it is expensive for local government and restrictive for mourners. Many people want to hold services and remember the dead in private, according to their own customs. With direct cremation costing an average of $1,110.05, this can be challenging.

To meet this need, non-profit mortuaries have sprung up across the United States. In Washington, the People’s Memorial Association offers discounted cremation and burial as well as help with end-of-life planning on almost any budget. A non-profit called the Urban Death Project is under development now to create new, affordable, environmentally-conscious ways to honor the bodies of the departed.

To learn more about funeral customs in the United States, check out our booklist: Funeral Customs in the United States and related resources in King County, WA.

    – posted by Anne C.

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