Topeka — Proposed state budget cuts would touch some Kansans even in death.
Under a budget plan before the Legislature, a funeral assistance program for the poor would be eliminated for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Funeral directors say such a cut would be a sad reflection on the state's priorities, and they warned elimination of the program could cause health problems.
"Dead human bodies may remain with hospitals or county coroner's offices for lengthy periods until someone takes responsibility to pay for disposition," Shirley Brown-Van Arsdale, funeral director and owner of Bruce Funeral Home of Gardner, recently told lawmakers.
Larry McElwain, co-owner and funeral director at Warren-McElwain Mortuary and Crematory Services in Lawrence, said funeral homes would continue to provide services for indigents, but he said if the Legislature cut the program, the costs would be shifted to the funeral homes and counties.
"The funeral home is going to be in a position of doing probably more than our share in picking up the bill to bury these people," said McElwain, who also has been talking with lawmakers about the proposed budget cut.
The funeral assistance program costs the state about $480,000 per year. Under the program, a funeral home receives $550 for service and burial of a person who had been receiving state assistance and had few or no assets.
The state used to pay $1,150 per person, but reduced that several years ago, adding to the law a provision that allowed the family of the deceased to contribute to the cost of the service up to a total of $2,000 without forfeiting the state's $550.
Pam Scott, executive director of the Kansas Funeral Directors and Embalmers Assn., however, said in indigent cases, the family rarely had enough funds to contribute. And, she said, in most cases the family requests a burial and service, instead of a less expensive cremation.
The $550, she said, doesn't come near to covering the costs of burial, service, casket, cemetery costs and other services.
In fiscal year 2001, the state spent $8,800 on 16 funerals in Douglas County, according to the association.
Even though funeral directors say they lose money burying the poor, McElwain said funeral homes perform the service anyway because it's the right thing to do.
"I feel we do have a responsibility to help, and we do that," he said.
But with the state facing a projected $680 million revenue shortfall, it seems likely that the $550 state burial grant will be eliminated.
Gov. Bill Graves has proposed a $228 million tax increase to help bridge the shortfall, and in his State of the State speech, he specifically called for restoring funds to the funeral assistance program.
"I believe it is a significant measure of what kind of a society we are. We have an obligation to Kansans to ensure their dignity even at their deaths," Graves said.
So far, however, lawmakers have not made any significant progress on raising new revenue.
"The squeeze is on," McElwain said. "It's such a small amount of money compared with the overall state budget, and many legislators and bureaucrats don't see the practical application out here of what that money means."
McElwain noted that many bodies were buried unceremoniously in a pauper's field in the Oak Hill Cemetery during the Great Depression.
"We've come a long way since then," he said, adding that he didn't want to see that progress diminished.