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Abuse of county’s pauper burial program leads to formal policy

Members of the Washington County Health and Welfare Committee have established a formal policy to prevent abuse of pauper burials.
“From all indications, we are being taken advantage of,” Mayor Dan Eldridge said during the Dec. 20 County Commission meeting.
The general fund budget includes $40,000 to cover the cost of burials for individuals who do not have the resources.
A total of 52 burials were paid for by the county during the last fiscal year, and the county has paid for 25 pauper burials since July, according to Pat Wolfe, committee chair. The cost to the county is $600 per burial.
It is suspected that the county is bearing the cost of burials for individuals who have personal or family ability to pay.
Research is now being conducted to determine if assets are available before the county makes a commitment.
The policy for pauper burials will apply to bodies that are not claimed and no known relative can be found, Wolfe said.
Under the new guidelines, the body will first be offered to the East Tennessee State University James H. Quillen College of Medicine for research. If refused, the body will be offered to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Body Farm.
If the second option isn’t viable, the body will be cremated and the ashes placed in a repository at the County Farm on Mt. Zion Road.
Eight local funeral homes provide the cremation service on a rotating basis.
County Attorney John Rambo said the county changed from burying bodies to cremating them almost 10 years ago because of the large number of burial spaces that were being used.
Rambo said the guidelines established by the Health and Welfare Committee are in adherence with state laws.
“The state’s public policy is trying to meet a need for research and teaching, which is why we are required to offer the bodies to a state facility first,” he said.
However, the vast majority of bodies are not accepted following a medical exam, according to Rambo.
While an administrative policy regarding pauper burials has always been in place, Rambo agreed with the need to establish formal guidelines.
“Frankly, I think there may be a correlation between the recession and the number of burials we are paying for,” he said.
Eldridge said there will be circumstances that merit pauper burials.
“But we want to put in a means to prevent the taxpayers from being unnecessarily burdened,” he said.
The full commission will likely look at the new policy and consider approving it at the January meeting.