Illinois Coroner Holds Remains "Hostage" Unless Families Can Pay $1000

A western Illinois coroner is taking heat over how he handles the remains of those whose loved ones can't afford a proper burial: after signing over their rights to the body, he cremates the deceased and keeps the ashes until the family pays him $1,000 - at which point he'll release the death certificate. Of the $1,000, $800 goes to a funeral home and $200 to the crematory.

If a family can't pay, the ashes of their loved one are mixed with others and buried in an unmarked grave. Meanwhile, if the death certificate is needed for some purpose (life insurance, settling the estate, etc.), the coroner, James Keller, will arrange for the county to recoup its costs from any proceeds. 

Keller says he adopted the policy after the state announced that it was too broke to pay for indigent funerals and burials - instead shifting the cost to funeral homes and county coroners.

After Chris Weible died last month, his family held a memorial service at a Quincy church with just a photograph and an empty container. Weible and his ex-wife, Wendy Smith, who had three children together, were both on disability.

I just think they pick on the people that are poor,” Smith said. -AP

Keller says his approach protects taxpayers in the tiny county bordering the Mississippi River, while ensuring that funeral homes are paid for their services and poor families can see their loved one buried without having to pay for a full burial. 

Keller has continued the policy despite the fact that Illinois has resumed paying for funerals.

“We do our very best and our due diligence to taxpayers, and we try to be supportive of families, with the hand that we’re dealt with by the state,” Keller said.

Local residents outraged at the policy are trying to force Keller to change it - claiming that "it amounts to the coroner's office holding ashes hostage and creates a financial crisis for grieving relatives already struggling to pay for basic necessities," reports AP.

“I felt like it was a kidnapping. He was being held against his will,” said Tom McElroy, whose brother, Mark, died last year with nothing to his name except $200 found in his wallet.

Dignity vs. Solvency

Over a dozen states provide funding to cover the costs of funerals - however many others, from Indiana to West Virginia, say their funds fall short of demand.

Illinois provides up to $1,655 — $1,103 for funerals and $552 for cremation and burial. But the money was cut off in 2010 and again in 2015 as the state headed into a more than two-year budget impasse. In some cases, counties ended up picking up the costs.

Rod Cookson, co-owner of Zehender Robinson Stormer Cookson Funeral Home in Quincy, said at one point the state owed his business about $20,000. Cookson said he didn’t know the Legislature restored the funding.

“They’re bankrupt,” he said of the state. -AP

In other words, Illinois coroners and funeral homes know they'll probably get stuck footing the bill the next time Illinois legislators realize they're still in deep financial trouble.

That said, perhaps many Illinois funeral homes simply didn't realize they can now receive state funding again. While lawmakers have appropriated $9.3 million to pay for final expenses for the indigent - the same amount as 2015, the number of claims has dropped dramatically, from 5,652 in FY 2015 to 1,084 so far this fiscal year ending June 30.

Keller - who is also a funeral director, has the support of Cookson - who says it's not fair that some people are making him out to be "next to the devil." 

“These people that don’t have any money are very, very lucky to live in Adams County,” Cookson said.

Keller says he's had 90 inquiries about indigent burials last year. He insists he gives families ample opportunity to back out of signing over their loved one’s body, and that he doesn’t give them the death certificate or ashes to protect against “abuse,” such as a case in which he learned a family that didn’t want to pay for burial had received life insurance.

Smith has a different version of events. She says she was unclear about what the form she was signing would do, and that she asked Keller if he could work with her to make payments toward the $1,000 and he refused. She also says Keller told her that if she didn’t pay, he’d bury the ashes in a cemetery and not reveal the location. He denies that, but several friends and family say they heard Keller make that statement or that he separately told them the same thing. -AP

Smith was eventually able to come up with $1,000 through donations.