The Cost of Burying Forgotten Souls

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BY DIANE DIMOND

Sources say the average cost of a North American funeral these days is between $7,000 and $10,000. Imagine, then, what it costs each state to bury inmates who die in prison, those whose bodies are unclaimed by family members.

Just like the population in general, the average age of prisoners is increasing. Coupled with the past trend of imposing long prison sentences, more and more inmates die behind bars.

Inmates often arrive at institutions in poor physical condition, following years without proper health care. Chronic maladies like asthma, hepatitis and HIV are common. Many have histories of drug and alcohol abuse. All those diseases can contribute to early death. And considering today’s fragmentation of the family structure, it is easy to see how more and more families are unavailable or financially unable to tend to their relatives’ final needs.

The costs of burying these souls or arranging for their cremation falls on us, the taxpayers. It’s likely you’ve never thought about this when contemplating why your state taxes keep going up every year.

Some prisons maintain their own cemeteries, but not many. The oldest one in the country is the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. Since the mid-1800s, it has been the repository for both those who were executed at the nearby Texas State Penitentiary and those deceased Texas inmates who remain unclaimed.

I have visited a death row inmate at the Huntsville facility, and the neatly kept, peaceful-looking cemetery appears in sharp contrast to the razor-wired environment that lies just about a mile away. It was once written that the place is reminiscent of Arlington National Cemetery, although its land is for burying heroes rather than villains.

As a point of reference, consider this: In Texas, about 450 inmates die every year, and about 100 are buried at the cemetery. The average cost of each burial is about $2,000. Inmates transport the bodies, dig the graves, keep the grounds and perform other related duties.

Not every state spends $200,000 a year to bury its dead prisoners, but the costs are mounting in every state. And that’s even when some states like Louisiana use inmate labor to build the coffins.

In Missouri, where there are some 32,000 inmates, prison officials are currently seeking burial bids from funeral homes. The state spent $62,000 last year on 55 unclaimed inmates (that’s about $1,100 per burial) and is now on the hunt for the least expensive wooden boxes and grave liners it can find to help reduce costs.

Some readers have been wondering why this is an issue to care about. After all, convicted murderers, rapists and habitual child abusers aren’t usually the recipients of citizens’ sympathy. But attitudes change with death. Biblical lessons of forgiveness and the afterlife can loom large, and after all, we want compassion to be shown upon our own deaths, right?

In Oregon, a stark lesson was learned when the cremains of more than 3,400 inmates of the former Oregon State Hospital had been all but forgotten in bent and rusted copper urns. The ashes present were of those whose deaths spanned from 1913 to 1971. Sen. Peter Courtney happened to stumble upon the abandoned remains during a trip to the facility to show a group where the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed. They discovered the corroded canisters inside an old shed. The group fell silent, Courtney later recalled.

“If it makes any sense, the silence was the loudest I’d ever heard in my life,” he said.

Thanks to funding efforts led by Sen. Courtney, those remains are now housed in a new memorial. After a long laborious effort to identify, categorize and transfer them to new urns, the remains were then offered to generations of the families that once failed to claim them. Don Whetsell was among the more than 120 heirs to step forward. He was able to give his grandfather a proper burial 60 years after he had died.

Yes, things can change after death. We can view the criminals, the criminally insane or those who suffered and died in locked-away places in a different light. No one likes ever-increasing taxes. But paying to bury forgotten souls is OK with me.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net

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