The Illinois Department of Human Services has cut off all funding to funeral homes for services provided to the indigent dead, and now it likely will fall to the counties to come up with a way to help families cope financially.

But county officials say they have no money to help indigent people deal with funeral expenses.

“The law is very clear,” said Steve Pressly, owner of Wheelan-Pressly Funeral Homes in Rock Island, Milan and Reynolds. “It is now the responsibility of the county to pay for indigent funerals.

“I believe the county will have to put together some kind of guidelines to determine who is indigent and who is not.”

Rock Island County Board chairman Jim Bohnsack said he has heard nothing from the state, nor has he received any direction from the Department of Human Services.

“We’re very concerned with the kind of money it would cost us,” he said. “It’s well over $100,000 per year, we are estimating.

“The county can only do what the state allows us to do. If it’s an unfunded mandate, we will do it. The question is where the money is coming from.”

Until the issue of helping to pay for indigent burials arose, he said, “we had a good budget that people could live with.”

To make the budget work, he added, the county board eliminated or chose not to fill 19 positions. 

If the cost of paying for funerals is passed to the county, he said, the county will have to respond.

“What are we to do?” he asked. “Do we lay people off? Or do we work harder to make sure that the people claiming to be indigent are truly indigent and not just trying to avoid paying?”

Rock Island County Coroner Brian Gustafson pointed out that the state used to pay $1,103 to a funeral home for a basic funeral for an individual who qualified as indigent.

However, burial at a cemetery is a separate issue with which a family must contend.

As it is now, he said, “I’m going to be doing direct cremations as a rule of thumb. It’s the cheapest and more economical way for the county to go.”

No state money

Illinois cut funding for indigent burials for a week in June 2009. That issue was resolved, but this time, with the state in such dire financial straits, the Department of Human Services, or DHS, has put everyone on notice that it has no money for funding indigent funerals.

Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, said that some entity needs to help cover the costs.

“I’m not saying it’s the county,” he said.

However, he added, with the budget ax falling all across the board, paying for indigent funerals may fall to an entity at the local level.

Moline Township Supervisor Don Johnston said he remembers when the townships were responsible for helping the indigent with funeral and burial costs.

“We don’t have any money for something like that these days,” he said. “I don’t know how that’s going to work out. I would guess the county is the one that ultimately would have to do something. But the county has no money. All governments are in the same fix.”

In the meantime, Verschoore said he is trying to get the state to pay for funerals that already have been approved and performed.

“I’m trying to get those folks their money,” he said. “Many of those should have been paid last year.”

Funeral homes await payments

Pressly said his funeral homes have conducted 26 funerals for indigent people, with 18 of those done last year. Each was approved before he performed them. Pressly said, however, that he has not received any  payment for any of those funerals. The oldest one dates to January 2010.

“We still did eight cases in the first six weeks of 2011, which speaks to the situation in the community with tight finances,” Pressly said.

Verschoore said he does not know how the situation will “shake out with the budget. We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. The real cutting is coming in April and May.”

Earl Wendt of Wendt Funeral Home in Moline said Illinois funeral directors are going to come up with a basic minimum funeral they can offer to help people.

“I feel bad for them,” he said, referring to those who cannot afford a funeral for their loved ones. “I would basically do a minimum funeral for them, as would just about every funeral home. But if they want any extras, they’re going to have to pay for them upfront.”

Some entity does need to help with the expense, he added.

“This person is a resident of Illinois, a resident of whatever county or city or township,” he said. “Some entity should be able to come up with an equal or greater amount than the Department of Human Services.

“The funeral homes are stepping up. One of these other entities should be stepping up.”

“You want to help those folks truly in need,” Pressly said. “The funeral homes in Illinois, if they’re providing a funeral for $1,100, they’re doing it as a way to serve the community first and foremost.

“But for us being owed for 26, it gets to a point where you have to at least recoup your out-of-pocket expense. You can donate your services. But tangible property must be paid for.”

Gustafson is worried about how it will affect coroners, too.

“I’m afraid my job as coroner is going to filter into the funeral director role,” he said. “It will be all on me and they’ll have nothing to do with it.

“Dignity will still be maintained. Nobody asks to be put on public aid, and it could happen to any of us at any time.”