Special Report: Last Rites

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BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)– Death is the final act of our lives. What follows, for most, is a funeral or a memorial service planned by family and attended by friends.

You may have wondered what happens to those who do not have a family to care for their bodies after they pass or the means to pay for a funeral. 

What happens to them when they pass on from this world to the next?

In Bay County, all indigent and transient individuals are accounted for in the Bay County Indigent Program. 

First, the body is transported to the Bay County Medical Examiner’s Office. If no one has claimed the body for at least 5 days, they then qualify for the indigent program.

The remains are cremated by several local funeral homes.

Up until Hurricane Michael, Kent-Forest Lawn, Heritage Funeral Home, and Southerland Family Funeral homes all participated in the program on a rotating basis.

Southerland had to drop out after their facility suffered heavy damages but hopes to rejoin in December of this year.

President and owner of Southerland Family Funeral Homes, Steve Southerland, expressed that honoring and remembering those who have no family is tough, but important.

“You feel kind of helpless. We’re so used to family and close friends rallying around to care for them.  So it is sad, and you wonder how any individual got to that point where they have no one,” Southerland said.

President of Kent-Forest Lawn Funeral Home, Greg Brudnicki, said it is also important to remember the program also extends to others in the county who are considered indigent by federal poverty guidelines.

“They may or may not be homeless people. They just don’t have the wherewithal to be able to take care of themselves as far as for a funeral,” Brudnicki said.

In Bay County, taxpayers assist with the cost of these cremations. The cost for cremation is $750, which both Brudnicki and Southerland said is lower than the typical market price.

Southerland also expressed that the Bay County Indigent Program is unique, in that there is no bidding for contracts. All funeral homes that participate do it strictly on a volunteer basis.

Southerland said this is important in that all those who are cremated are treated with utmost care.

“Who gets low bid contracts? Low bidders, not firms that are reputable that would not do this as a public service,” Southerland said.

In 2019, the burial program covered the expenses for 109 deaths. 52 were unclaimed, 57 were considered indigent. The total cost for the county was $81,750.

County attorney officials meet with families that try to claim loved ones to make sure they qualify for indigent status.

“They have to meet federal poverty guidelines.  Our office actually goes through an application process with them and they have to show documentation of income,” said Deputy Assistant County Attorney, Jennifer Schuler.

Schuler also said if a person claiming a loved one does not meet indigent status, they must reimburse the county.

Federal law mandates funeral homes keep cremated remains for at least 120 days.

Southerland said his funeral home keeps them a bit longer, hoping someone shows up to claim the remains.

“If somebody has not come forward in those 120 days there is a small possibility they will come forward at all,” Southerland said.

Although, it’s something he says has happened.

“The times that that has occurred it’s very satisfying knowing that there is closure,” Southerland said.

Kent-Forest Lawn Funeral Home has an ossuary for unclaimed remains. Southerland Funeral Homestypically does a scattering of the remains in St. Andrews Bay.

Ultimately, both men said this is one of the ways they give back to the community.

“These people have to be taken care of,” Brudnicki said.

Southerland said he feels how we honor those in death says a lot about our society.

“All you have to do is show me how a nation, a community, a county- cares for its dead, and that will tell me all I need to know about its people. In Bay County, we value life,” Southerland said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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