- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

YORK, S.C. — For months, the body of a 54-year-old Navy veteran sat in an unmarked grave in a pauper’s cemetery.

Because Dale Saxton’s family never claimed the remains, the coroner’s office paid $2,020 to embalm the body and secure it in an inexpensive coffin in a tiny plot with no vault so the ground sinks quickly above it.

Mr. Saxton’s fate represents a problem that coroners in the nation’s larger cities have been pressed to deal with for years — one that is just emerging in smaller towns and cities, particularly in South Carolina, where the number of indigent burials nearly doubled in the past decade or so.

Pauper burials mostly involve men, usually in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

The question of how to dispose of remains that were left unclaimed by families who could not afford the burial cost or were unaware their loved ones had died has become an increasing burden on coroners.

South Carolina laws leave coroners with no choice but to handle arrangements themselves, which puts a strain on budgets already lean from years of cuts.

“We just can’t dump these people by the side of the street,” said Doug McKown, the York County coroner. “A society is judged by the way it treats their dead.”

Susan Chewning, the Charleston County coroner, said the increase in indigent burials can be linked to a more mobile society that leaves people estranged from families, a modern lifestyle that puts less importance on treating relatives with respect, and families with fewer children to take care of aging parents.

“Our elderly are outliving our young ones. So who’s left to bury them? A lot of times, it’s no one,” said Miss Chewning, who saw one indigent burial a year when she started 12 years ago but now sees several.

Dr. Fred Jordan, vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said the problem might just be emerging in smaller cities and towns, and authorities may not realize that others are dealing with the same issues.

In large cities, unclaimed bodies are nothing new.

“It’s been that way for years and years,” said Lt. David Smith with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Department.

In South Carolina, Mr. McKown used to find money in his budget to pay for indigent burials. This year, he plans to put a $12,000 line item in his $300,000 budget to emphasize the growing need.

When he took office 10 years ago, Mr. McKown averaged four paupers’ funerals a year. Six months into this budget year, he already has had four, including Mr. Saxton, who was found dead in his home in January. An autopsy showed he had liver and stomach cancer.

Mr. Saxton apparently was estranged from his family. After he was buried, his mother called the coroner’s office, but didn’t make any efforts to claim his remains or belongings, Mr. McKown said.

After the Associated Press published a story about Mr. Saxton’s fate, Mr. McKown got donations to transfer the remains to a more prominent burial site at South Carolina’s Florence National Cemetery. He was buried there with military honors last Friday, as two dozen former veterans turned out to salute the flag-draped coffin.

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