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County to keep cremation program

Utah County officials are going to keep a cremation policy that's effectively cutting the number and costs involved with indigent burials.

The commission voted recently to renew a contract with Sundberg-Olpin Mortuary of Orem to provide services to those who die within the county without means.Pat Fleming, director of the division of human services within the county's Health Department, said since the county decided to cremate people who couldn't pay for burial, the number of requests for county disposition has fallen by half.

"We are now seeing only about two and a half (requests) a month. We were up to four a month," Fleming said. "Most were coming from the nursing homes. I can't tell you how many times we'd have `mom' die in a home and the grown kids would come in from California to say, `She doesn't have anything.'

"The county was subsidizing an increasing number of burials. It was entirely open on the county's checkbook," he said. Some burials were done with the assumption the county would cover costs of up to $2,500 and even $7,000 or $8,000, although no one in the county would be consulted before the burial.

Fleming was in the unenviable position of having to decide which costs were legitimate and which weren't.

"Here's me, not an elected official, and I was making these kinds of decisions with tax dollars. I was basically setting up the commission who'd ultimately have to deal with what I decided."

Fleming checked around and found Salt Lake County already had a cremation-only policy for indigents. He added the element of checking the income levels of both the deceased and the immediate family against federal poverty guidelines and presented his ideas to the commission.

Consequently, for the past 18 months, Utah County has been paying Sundberg-Olpin Mortuary $660 for an adult cremation, $460 for a child cremation or $1,000 for a simple burial - if the family wants to pay the $340 difference.

The result is more families are opting to arrange for their own, and the county is saving money.

The annual budget that was headed toward $30,000 a year is now a little less than $9,000.

"It's worked out really well," Fleming said. "I think it was the responsible thing to do. I catch a lot of flak about this, but it's the right thing."

Many families have religious and personal problems with a cremation, and Fleming understands that. So did the county commissioners when Fleming first proposed the policy.

"That's why we provided some wiggle room and decided if the family does not want cremation they can pay the extra costs of going to a burial."

A simple burial includes the cleaning and embalming, a shroud or wrap and a fabric-covered cardboard coffin. If the family does not have a cemetery plot available, the county will pay for the mortuary to find one for an extra $150.

Utah County does not have a central "potter's field" or section for indigent burials although Fleming tried for a while to purchase a large amount of cemetery space in Eureka, Elberta or Goshen.

Indigents include anyone who dies within the county area without identification or the means to pay for burial.

Efforts are made first to establish residency if that's possible and then to establish solvency.

"This goes way back to the 1880s when somebody would die in the canyons and get dumped on us. It became a public health concern," Fleming said. "You do what you can within a limited amount of time."

He's been surprised and dismayed at the number of people he sees "abandoned" by their families when they die.

"It's driven home to me the lack of consideration our society has for its own or even for ourselves. We've had some people tell us their father wouldn't buy burial insurance because they felt it was the government's responsibility to take care of that.

"Frankly," he said, "we were starting to have a real problem. It's kind of sad."