- Associated Press - Friday, June 30, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Behind a rusted red gate off Crawfordville Road and down a long dirt road is Leon Serenity Cemetery, where Jane and John Does are laid to rest.

In the sparsely wooded lot are small metal nameplates pinned upright to the ground.

Some are named and numbered. Others are just numbered. Among them, a rare flat gravestone sits adorned with fake flowers. The cemetery is remarkable for its lack of upright headstones.

The burial ground once belonged to the shuttered Sunland Hospital. It is the final resting place for those patients who didn’t make it.

Now it belongs to Leon County as an indigent burial cemetery, to bury men, women and children whose families couldn’t afford a burial. They rest alongside unclaimed bodies, many of them homeless people.

Others are unidentified and listed in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Online searches on the NamUS website find breadcrumbs in hopes of possible identification: photos of a beaded bracelet a woman wore when her body was found; renderings of tattoos, like a bee on a woman’s shoulder; descriptions of clothing.

Thirty people were buried or cremated through Leon County’s indigent burial program in the 2016 fiscal year. Of those, more than half had no next of kin.

Just a few miles down the road is Tillman Funeral Home. It’s been one of the main homes handling indigent and unclaimed or unidentified cases recently.

The number of indigent people in Leon County are “growing by leaps and bounds,” said Alfonza “Al” Hall, president, funeral director and embalmer at Tillman.

So far in 2017, there have already been 26 people buried or cremated through the program. Seven of those had no next of kin.

The county implemented a new budget for the program June 1 - a skyrocketing 87-percent increase from the amount allocated in the past ten years.

Life is priceless. But death carries a hefty cost.

To seal with dignity a life lived, local funeral homes and the county pay that price.

Leon County is trying to ease that burden. The budget was implemented to address costs deemed “inordinate” by funeral homes.

Hall’s demeanor changes when he remembers a baby girl who was abandoned, unclaimed. Tillman Funeral Home had to bury her. “That sort of got to me,” he said, shaking his head. It struck a chord with him; he and his wife had lost their first child.

He’s seen many a demise like that unknown baby girl’s, including other infants.

Another was a veteran whose remains were flown to the National Cemetery, but no one attended his memorial service. One of Hall’s staff members accepted the flag on his behalf, he said.

“Many of them were brought into the hospital under emergency conditions, they failed to make it out or they come in found,” Hall said, “or when they go to the doctor, it’s just too late.”

An element of shame veils some family members from publicly asking for help.

“You got to go and reveal to the county what you have and what the person doesn’t have. The family feels embarrassed,” Hall said.

But some locals have suppressed that shame and resorted to crowdfunding.

Like in Anthony Todd’s case. He was homeless for many years. He’d been in and out of jail. He was a familiar face around Frenchtown. His mother was reportedly at a nursing home nearby when he was found dead in a dumpster only a month before he would turn 44.

“Todd was a good person,” Elvis Williams, a man who knew Todd, told the Democrat. “He had his problems, but he would share what he had with anyone.”

Todd was cremated last year, though not through the county. His sister had to start a GoFundMe to try to raise funds. There are few burial assistance nonprofits, like the Hebrew Free Burial Association.

Local altruist Karen French’s family started a fundraiser on GoFundMe to cremate her when she became terminally ill. She died in May. Her family knew they couldn’t afford a burial, even though that was her death wish — but she was adamant about not being buried in the indigent cemetery, her sister Stephanie Taylor said.

The county doesn’t allow for funeral services at Leon Serenity, and they’re not accounted for in the budget.

“Neighbors may know of their loss and ask them questions like, ‘When’s the funeral?’” Hall said, “and there is no funeral.”

There are so many like that veteran, like the baby girl, in the cemetery’s more than 600 graves.

Death doesn’t just take a toll on loved ones’ emotions. It’s also a blow to their finances.

But when families can’t pay for a burial, funeral homes have to bear that cost with little county help.

From wooden, treated caskets to embalming the body, to a hearse and service, funerals can quickly become an expensive burden.

So much so that Leon County’s new indigent burial budget is jumping from $34,415 to $64,400.

In 2014, the national median cost for a funeral was $7,181, with $2,000 for basic services and almost $1,000 for embalming and preparation of the body, according to the National Funeral Director Association. At Tillman, a typical funeral could cost about $5,000.

“Because of that, a lot of our funeral home partners are saying that in providing the service that they do, it was causing them a lot of loss financially,” said Shington Lamy, director at the Office of Human Services & Community Partnerships. He’s been spearheading the county’s budget redraft.

Burials and cremations would be handled on a rotating basis, so it’s less of a burden on one funeral home, said Lamy.

But they need participating funeral homes for that to happen. As of June 9, only one funeral home has signed on to participate in Leon County’s program.

The new budget allots $1,200 for an adult burial, an 85-percent increase from the previous amount, and $800 for an adult cremation, double the previous amount. Toward a child burial, Leon pays $500.

That’s more than neighboring Alachua County, but less than Central Florida’s Lake and Osceola Counties. Some counties, like St. Lucie, don’t offer adult indigent burials at all - only cremations.

Though the increase will help, the funeral home still has to foot the rest of the costs itself.

“Of course, you don’t break even with the amount of time that’s spent with this,” said Hall.

Tillman’s was the last one left in the program this past year before this new budget was implemented.

It’s a burden many funeral homes dropped off of bearing. Bevis Funeral Home was one of those, along with Culley’s MeadowWood, which handled 32 indigent burial and cremation cases in 2015, the company said.

He added that time is money too, like the time it takes to identify a body, which could take from a couple of days to a couple of months, or to get a doctor to certify the death. During all that, the body is held at the funeral home or the hospital morgue if that’s where the person died.

The sheriff’s office helps the medical examiner in identifying the person and next of kin by going through records and various databases, said Leon County Sheriff’s Office PIO Lt. Grady Jordan. Aside from those searches, fingerprints and dental records tests are done, with DNA tests as a last resort.

“And that’s very time-consuming, so the amount of money that’s spent for a case doesn’t warrant the amount of work you put into it,” Hall said.

Rocky Bevis, director of Bevis Funeral Home, echoed that thought.

“It is complicated, it is time-consuming,” he said. But he’s hopeful in the county’s new budget. “We’d have to hold somebody for weeks while the county determined this person was actually unclaimed or indigent. At that point I wasn’t capable of waiting that long,” Bevis said, due to other clients.

To solve that, the county is constructing a freestanding medical examiner’s office with its own morgue. Currently, it’s operated inside Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.

“We have a community problem,” he said about the issue. Bevis stopped participating about 15 years ago.

Hall had the same problems. But he’s still signing on to participate in the program.

It’s because of “my hard commitment,” he said, “of trying to do something to help somebody.”

Somebodies with, perhaps, no known names, like Baby Girl and Boy Seymore, unclaimed twins buried in a joint grave in 2014, behind that little red fence off Crawfordville Road.

___

Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, https://www.tdo.com

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