Jeff Jardine: Ceres woman’s burial needs draw donation offers from public

06/25/2014 8:34 PM

06/25/2014 8:35 PM

When relatives declined to pay burial costs for a deceased 63-year-old woman from Ceres this past week, a Stanislaus County coroner’s deputy asked The Bee to put out a request to the public to cover the expense.

A short story that appeared on Modbee.com and on our Facebook page read, “The Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office is looking for anyone willing to make funeral arrangements for a woman who died last week.”

As it turned out, there was a mix-up in the message. The Coroner’s Office had hoped to locate other family members or friends who would step forward and handle her funeral or cremation, not issue a plea for funds to the county to cover the cost.

Yet the blurb, posted all day Monday, generated 108 comments. Many of them were from caring people who wanted to help financially. A florist volunteered to provide flowers for the burial or interment. Another suggested that they all give up a drink at Starbucks for a day and instead contribute $5 to the cause. One wanted to stage a benefit car wash, and a waitress pledged a day’s worth of tips. Some called the Coroner’s Office offering cash. And one person on Monday created a Facebook page titled “In Memory of Vicki Hutchings.”

It didn’t matter whether they knew Hutchings personally. They simply believed she deserves have a proper burial.

Conversely, several commentors criticized Hutchings’ family for not stepping up. Did they know why? Of course not. Maybe her kin simply couldn’t afford to pay for a funeral.

All that stated, the Coroner’s Office doesn’t accept donations. At best, it can direct individuals to the mortuary or crematorium handling the case, and they can pay them. But with people willing to contribute, why couldn’t the county create a fund to help pay for such services? What if well-meaning people want to step up for a homeless person or someone with no family and are willing to handle the arrangements? And if such a donation were tax deductible, wouldn’t that be an incentive to donate?

It’s not that easy, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said. First, the sheriff’s annual budget includes $10,000 for indigent burial costs. The department stretches the money by maintaining good partnerships with local mortuaries and crematoriums, he said.

Second, the county has no real mechanism to handle those kinds of contributions. The coroner’s staff could send a donor to the specific mortuary to pay directly, assuming the donor didn’t care about the tax benefit. And if Christianson wanted to create such a fund, he would need have to get the county Board of Supervisors’ approval, and the county counsel’s office would need to sign off.

Some service clubs and other organizations have contributed in the past, paying the bills directly to the providers.

“Veterans are not allowed to be buried as indigents,” said Larry Seymour, the county’s chief deputy coroner. “And when babies are abandoned and deceased, the service groups and cemeteries take donations” directly, not through the county.

Otherwise, it would take a nonprofit organization such as the Stanislaus Community Foundation to handle the funds and to make sure they were used for the intended purposes.

Third, the county handles about two dozen indigent burials each year. Perhaps if the county endures something akin to the heat wave that killed 23 people here in 2006, there might be a need for more funds.

“If there was a multicasualty event, it might be something to consider,” Christianson said.

Otherwise, the sheriff’s budget covers it.

Which brings us back to the people who feel for those who live and die in virtual obscurity, or whose family cannot or won’t pay for burial or cremation. They offered to help give a total stranger a final moment of dignity.

That, in any community, speaks volumes.

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