Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2021

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POVERTY:

The afterlife of Clark County’s poor

Unmarked crypts, grave sites in valley hold their remains

mausoleum2

Leila Navidi

Remembrance Mausoleum at Bunkers Eden Vale Memorial Park is one of several facilities in the Las Vegas Valley housing county-owned crypts for holding remains of indigent residents.

Click to enlarge photo

Unmarked crypts hold cremated remains of some of Clark County's poor in a mausoleum at Bunkers Eden Vale Memorial Park in Las Vegas.

Click to enlarge photo

The number of Clark County residents who died too poor to pay for their own burials or cremations jumped by 22 percent in the past fiscal year — unprecedented growth that county officials say is yet another sign of the economic times.

Clark County’s Social Service Department covers burial and cremation expenses of the indigent — people defined officially by their finances (no more than $2,000 in assets or $1,436 a month in income) and unofficially by their circumstances.

“It’s an alone population. Some are homeless, some are elderly, and some are people who are just alone and have no support system,” Nancy McLane, the county’s social services director, explained.

This particular portion of the “alone population” swelled to 904 this past fiscal year, up from 741 the year prior — a percentage increase more than triple anything seen in the past decade, during which the average annual total was 779.

People who lost their jobs, or had to tap into their savings, or cashed in their funeral insurance as a result of the tough economy, can pass away without the resources to pay for even minimal funeral expenses. Mortuaries and social services workers will determine whether the deceased is a veteran and therefore entitled to burial in a veterans cemetery. They will also attempt to contact friends and family members of the deceased, many of whom are also struggling to make ends meet, McLane said.

Investigators for the Clark County coroner’s office are also finding more people worried about financing a loved one’s funeral, Coroner Mike Murphy said.

“The feeling from investigators is that people are overwhelmed now more than ever before,” Murphy said. “They’re saying, ‘I can’t take care of basic needs, I can’t pay the rent, what am I going to do about this funeral and my loved one? What next? Where do I go from here?’ ”

And because there is no obligation for relatives to pay for a funeral, if they don’t come up with the money, the burden falls upon Clark County Social Service.

Last year the county spent just over $415,000 on indigent burials or cremations — roughly $460 per person. The vast majority were cremated, because this is the less expensive option — the base cost of cremation is $425, and the base cost of a burial is $1,827, which includes the cost of a plot. For this reason, burials only occur when a social service representative determines there is a religious call for it, usually by talking to friends of the deceased and confirming with clergy.

McLane has asked the county to set aside another $415,000 to fund indigent burials and cremations this year, with the understanding that more money can be made available if needed.

The increase in indigent deaths is not confined to Clark County. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office, where homicides and suspicious deaths are handled, reported a 36 percent increase in the number of cremations done at taxpayers’ expense this past fiscal year, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday. Meanwhile, the number of indigent or unclaimed bodies L.A. County Morgue had cremated grew 25 percent during the first half of this year compared with the same time frame last year — a collective demand that has forced the county, which has its own crematorium, to outsource overflow to private facilities, the Times reported.

In Southern Nevada, the cremated remains are stored in one of several county-owned crypts, and like the county’s burial plots, they’re unmarked.

A handful of local clergy members perform volunteer funeral services for friends and family of the indigent deceased, including Pastor Garry Steinman, who says he has conducted roughly 370 such services in the past 18 years. They are seldom well-attended.

“Sometimes it’s just one person in a dirty T-shirt and a pair of thongs, and you know what, God takes us the way we are,” he said. “I just try to be the comfort they don’t have.”

Since 1998 the county has buried or cremated more than 8,600 indigent people. A list of these names is kept at the county recorder’s office, and should someone come forward to claim a relative, the county would seek reimbursement of costs, McLane said.

And exactly who were these unclaimed dead whom taxpayers paid to cremate or bury?

Officials would not release any names to the Sun. They said they had to protect the privacy of the deceased because they are considered clients of the county’s Social Service Department.

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