Facing increased burial costs and limited space in a county-run cemetery, McLennan County commissioners are considering a policy change to start cremating more of the destitute after they die.
Under state law, counties are responsible for disposing of the bodies of people who lack the means to pay for their own burial.
Under current policy, McLennan County offers burial or cremation services, but commissioners are considering limiting burials to save money and cemetery space.
“I think if the county taxpayers are paying for it, we should consider doing it as cheap as possible but yet still be mindful of the fact that it is the final arrangements for an individual,” County Judge Scott Felton said. “I would probably support cremation only — of course, within the boundaries of the statutes.”
Not everyone agrees.
Commissioner Lester Gibson, whose precinct has maintained the county-run Restland Cemetery in South Waco for paupers since 1991, thinks it should be up to the next of kin to decide whether a body is buried or cremated.
“I think the policy we have now is good,” he said. “Cremation solely because of the cost — I don’t think that should be the total consideration right now.”
The issue first arose in September, when commissioners learned they would pay more for pauper burial and cremation services in the budget year that started Oct. 1.
Only one company, Waco’s Lake Shore Funeral Home, responded to the county’s request for bids, and its rates — $1,144 per burial, $749 per cremation — were roughly twice what the county had been paying, according to county records.
Waco’s Brazos Funeral Home, which held the contract for the past six years, did not submit a bid.
The commissioners court voted 4-1 in September to approve the contract with Lake Shore Funeral Home, with Commissioner Joe Mashek opposing the cost increase.
The issue re-emerged Tuesday when commissioners learned the county is on track to exceed its $45,000 budget.
The county already incurred about $20,000 in costs under the contract, said Eva Cruz Hamby, the county’s health services director, whose office approves applications for pauper burials. The contract was awarded for $89,000, but Hamby said the cost may exceed that amount by the end of the budget year.
The county could save money by burying only unclaimed or unidentified bodies, Hamby said. All other bodies would be cremated — an option few families choose now, she said.
Other area counties, such as Dallas and Bell, have adopted similar policies, Hamby said.
Space running out
Without the policy change, commissioners should consider buying more land for burials, since space is running out at Restland Cemetery, Hamby said.
She did not say how many spaces were left and declined an interview request, but officials last year estimated the cemetery could serve the county for another five to eight years.
Gibson, who has warned the county about dwindling space at the cemetery for years, said the change to cremation only isn’t the answer. State law requires counties to take people’s religious affiliation into consideration when determining how to dispose of their bodies, and some people oppose cremation for religious reasons, Gibson said.
Commissioners deferred the issue for a legal opinion and more discussion and could resume the debate Tuesday.
Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Mormons are among the religious groups that forbid or rarely allow cremation, said A. Christian van Gorder, a Baylor University associate religion professor.
The Catholic church, which historically opposed cremation, now makes allowances if a funeral Mass is performed first, van Gorder said.
The policy change could allow the county to break its contract with Lake Shore Funeral Home with 30 days’ notice and seek new bids, officials said.
Brent Shehorn, the funeral home’s owner and director, said it would be “disappointing” if commissioners broke the agreement.
“My concern is we have a contract, and we have inventory that we have purchased” to serve the county, Shehorn said. “Should there be a change, it needs to be fair to me as well.”
Shehorn defended his company’s prices, saying the county’s prior fees hadn’t changed in six years while the cost of funeral services skyrocketed. Everything from casket materials to the gasoline needed to transport bodies costs more now than it did six years ago, he said.
Shehorn thinks the change to only cremation could cause a variety of legal and practical problems.
Some families strongly object to the practice for various reasons and could refuse to consent, Shehorn said. Also, people weighing more than 700 pounds can’t be cremated, so the county would have to provide burial services for them, he said.
Under county policy, people are eligible for pauper burial if they die in McLennan County without a life insurance policy, savings or other assets to cover their burial costs. The health department is charged with investigating applications to confirm each person’s eligibility.
About 1,000 burials took place at Restland between 1991 and 2011. A total grave count is hard to determine because some burials were not marked with headstones before 1991.
Under a 2011 policy change, destitute military veterans now are buried in the Central Texas Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. About 65 veterans were buried at Restland before the change.