The cost of eternal rest: Indigent cremation expenses on the rise for N.H. welfare offices 

By: - May 1, 2023 4:00 am

The crypt of St. Joseph of Arimathea at the Mount Calvary mausoleum holds the remains of more than 310 unclaimed or abandoned people from around New Hampshire. (Photo by Hadley Barndollar/New Hampshire Bulletin)

A ground-level crypt inside the peaceful Mount Calvary mausoleum is flanked by butter yellow tulips and bright chrysanthemums. Late in the day, sunlight pours through an adjacent stained-glass window, painting it in colors of sea glass – translucent blues and greens.

The crypt is named for St. Joseph of Arimathea, the biblical figure said to have taken responsibility for Jesus Christ’s body after his crucifixion, placing it in his own tomb.

Here, in the small marble vault at the Manchester cemetery, is where unclaimed and abandoned remains from across New Hampshire are interred each year.

The ceremony happens once annually, typically around All Souls Day in early November. Posted notices online and in newspapers list names, dates of birth and death, and places of residence with the hope the small text catches the eye of a family member or loved one. Sometimes it does, but more often it doesn’t.

Last year, there was a Carlene. A Maurice. A Jodi, Peter, Briana, and another 40 or so others. More than 310 cremated remains have been placed in the crypt over the last seven years, said Mount Calvary Deacon Kevin Cody.

For many of the individuals, taxpayer dollars funded their transition from physical body to ashes.

New Hampshire law requires that city and town welfare departments pay for the cremation and burial services of unclaimed people, and those whose family and friends can’t afford to or live too far away.

It’s a lesser known part of the local welfare job description, but one that’s getting increasing attention because municipal costs related to the deaths of indigent people are rising.

“It’s an obligation that we have,” said Todd Marsh, welfare director for Rochester and president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association. “It’s a societal obligation beyond our legal obligation. And it’s a reminder that it costs money from the time you’re born to the time that you die.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, officials say they’re seeing families increasingly needing financial assistance to lay their loved ones to rest. More people appear to be dying alone, too, and without family to claim them.

One funeral home director cited an unsettling trend of people abandoning deceased loved ones at hospitals or the medical examiner’s office, for various reasons.

“They have to reach out to the local welfare departments and say, ‘Mrs. Jones has been in our care for X amount of weeks and we can’t reach family,’” said Arthur “Buddy” Phaneuf, owner of Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, the parent company of the Cremation Society of New Hampshire. “

Phaneuf said they don’t pass judgment as to why.

The mausoleum at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Manchester has, for many years, given a final resting place to the cremated remains of unclaimed people from around the state. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)
The mausoleum at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Manchester has, for many years, given a final resting place to the cremated remains of unclaimed people from around the state. (Photo by Hadley Barndollar /New Hampshire Bulletin)

Municipal cremation costs are rising

Cremation costs for the city of Nashua have more than doubled over the past two years. In 2021, the city paid $10,150 in burial assistance. In fiscal year 2023, which ends June 30, the city has already paid more than $23,300.

That’s nearly 20 more deaths this year than in 2021.

Welfare officials interviewed for this story pointed to several contributing factors, including the pandemic, opioid use, mental health challenges, and an affordable housing crisis.

“When you have rents go up at $300 to $400 in a single jump with only 60 days warning, that puts a lot of pressure on people,” said David Balian, director of public welfare for the city of Dover. “It drives health, it drives mental health. If someone were to say all of these things piling together are creating more people dying, wouldn’t surprise me one bit. I think there’s more forces hitting at the same time. But I can’t qualify that. This is all anecdotal.”

Balian increased his cremation budget this year by $2,000, out of concern “there is going to be more.” In fiscal year 2022, Dover paid for the cremations of 11 people, the highest number of the last five fiscal years.

To pass away with an ‘unclaimed’ label, it’s so unfortunate and it’s sad.

– Todd Marsh, welfare director for Rochester and president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association

For Manchester Welfare Director Charleen Michaud, cremation costs are small in comparison to the lion’s share of her budget – housing. But they are increasing. She cited the opioid crisis and the state’s aging population.

In February, Manchester health officials said police responded to seven suspected drug-related deaths in a 48-hour window. Three were homeless people and one was found in a hotel.

Manchester has spent close to $25,000 on the cremation costs for 32 people during fiscal year 2023 so far, Michaud said. She’s requested an additional $10,000 for next year.

“I believe increasing funding for this line item in our budget is prudent,” she said.

Some communities – like Manchester, Dover, Keene and others – are now paying $1,100 for cremations to fully cover the discounted rates charged by funeral homes and organizations like the Cremation Society of New Hampshire. That’s also adding to the costs.

For years, most municipal welfare departments have paid around $750 per cremation. Many smaller towns can still only afford that or less. In those cases, families usually have to come up with the difference or find additional assistance elsewhere.

About 10 years ago, the Cremation Society developed a specific social services program for individuals and families that qualify for welfare burial assistance.

Phaneuf, a fourth-generation funeral director, said cremation payments from municipalities have always been “the wild west.”

‘Who was this person?’

Municipal assistance is often minimal and doesn’t supplement significant funeral arrangements, said Bob Mack, welfare officer in Nashua. Rather, it’s meant to “to ensure a decent burial or cremation.”

In some cases, there’s a patchwork of other organizations or entities helping out, but resources are slim. Sometimes it’s a church, like one in Nashua that “does a great deal with the homeless population and will cover funeral service costs for homeless individuals with no family or resources to cover this service,” Mack said. Veterans Affairs also provides additional help for veteran deaths, such as a headstone and burial at the VA cemetery.

Nashua’s municipal cemeteries have “pauper’s graves,” which are low- or no-cost gravesites to bury people with no next of kin, or families who don’t have resources to provide a resting place for their loved one.

Rochester’s Marsh knows at least one welfare officer in the state who has someone’s urn in her office. He doesn’t know how or why she came into possession of it.

“Especially if it’s an unclaimed person, we talk about, ‘Who was this person?’” Marsh said. “To pass away with an ‘unclaimed’ label, it’s so unfortunate and it’s sad.”

He views his office as an important part of the healing process. For family or friends seeking financial help to cremate a loved one, staff members listen intently. It’s “just being a person and not a bureaucrat,” he said.

But some stories are completely anonymous – no one to talk about the person or give context to a first and last name.

Buried in unmarked graves in Concord are New Hampshire Hospital patients who went unclaimed after their deaths. Next to an old ball field off Pleasant Street, a granite column reads, “I want to be loved and remembered. Though I now sleep for eternity, I too once lived …”

Next to an old ball field on Pleasant Street in Concord are unmarked graves of New Hampshire Hospital patients who died without anyone to claim them. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)

‘Everyone deserves a dignified farewell’

The state’s office of chief medical examiner plays a role in handling indigent deaths, too. It has jurisdiction over particular deaths, such as suicides, violent deaths, car crashes, unidentified people, and other sudden or unnatural deaths.

Since 2018, the office has seen at least 48 “welfare cases,” said Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator, and she’s confident there have been more. She noted not all were designated medical examiner cases, either.

“The funeral homes cannot always hang on to a body indefinitely in their facility,” she said. “They decompose, even in a cooler. We try to accommodate the funeral homes so some of these bodies end up in our morgue and we end up contacting welfare offices for them, too.”

Many welfare departments work with the Cremation Society of New Hampshire, which takes the deceased into their care, performs the cremation, handles the paperwork and death certificate filing, and returns the remains back to family in a temporary plastic container.

If there’s no one to claim them, it’s likely the person will be placed inside the communal crypt at Mount Calvary Cemetery.

The Cremation Society serves about 200 families or individuals a year through its social services program. Phaneuf estimates 60 percent of those are families needing help, while 40 percent are people who have gone unclaimed or abandoned.

Legally, a funeral home has to hold onto remains for 30 days. But Phaneuf’s business is careful in what happens to the ashes of a “once-vibrant individual.”

To that end, joining the crypt last fall were some people who passed decades ago – a woman who died in 1999 and a man who died in 2010.

“To us,” Phanuef said, “the bottom line is regardless of social status or what the person did in their life, everyone deserves a dignified farewell.”

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Hadley Barndollar
Hadley Barndollar

Hadley Barndollar covers climate, environment, and inequality for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Previously, she was the New England regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network and was named Reporter of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.