Dec. 29--High school senior Heidi Martens heard about 68-year-old Edwin C. Hughes in an ad in her local newspaper in October.
The Monroe County coroner was looking for relatives or anyone who knew Hughes, who died in the hospital Oct. 17 after a lengthy illness. A roommate knew Hughes was a veteran, which helped Martens, who decided to give him the send-off she thought he deserved, by creating the St. Joseph of Arimathea Ministry as her senior project at Notre Dame High School in East Stroudsburg. The ministry provides volunteer pallbearers, readers and altar servers, along with a choir and prayer service for indigent people or those, like Hughes, who die alone.
Martens, along with Monroe County Coroner Thomas Yanac, did some digging and learned that Hughes enlisted in the Army in 1971 and served during the Vietnam War, earning a marksman badge. He later lived in Tennessee, before returning to Stroudsburg, where he was born and died.
At a Nov. 19 funeral service at St. Matthew Catholic Church, Martens and her classmates escorted Hughes' flag-draped coffin, which was provided by Yanac, who owns a funeral home in Monroe County. Following the service, Hughes' remains were taken to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Lebanon County for a military burial.
"We believe no one should die without being mourned or prayed for," Martens said. "I hope that he would be happy that we did this for him."
Hughes' case was far from the norm, Yanac said. Typically, his office handles a handful of unclaimed body cases every year, quietly interring the remains in a county cemetery.
That's also what happens in Lehigh County, where the number of unclaimed bodies each year has grown along with burial costs. Most cases are like Hughes', where there are no living relatives to claim a body. But sometimes, relatives just can't handle the expense, which can run several thousand dollars for the simplest of services.
"A death, the cost of a funeral, can be quite expensive," said Lehigh County Coroner Eric Minnich, setting back families already struggling financially.
Considering that 1 in 4 Lehigh Valley area households are just getting by financially, according to a new report from the United Way, the unexpected cost of a funeral can be a life-altering catastrophe. With costs in mind, some families choose cremation, which is a cheaper option than traditional burial. Some consider nontraditional alternatives such as donating a loved one's body to science. And others simply don't claim a body, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.
In 2018 and 2017, the Lehigh County coroner's office had 59 unclaimed bodies, 37 of which were buried in the county-owned Cedar Heights cemetery in South Whitehall Township, which is reserved for the unclaimed, indigent and residents of the Cedarbrook Nursing home. The others were cremated. By October of this year, the office had 21 unclaimed bodies.
The county picks up the tab for burials if necessary, Minnich said.
"We obviously encourage people to pursue other avenues because that is a burden to the taxpayers," he said. "But that's what we are here to do at the end of the day."
Minnich said his office helps families understand what resources are available. The most affordable option, he said, is a body donation program that accepts remains for research and science, usually at no cost. The bodies are later cremated, with the ashes returned to the family, he said. One organization plants a tree in the person's memory, he added.
If families are opposed to donating a body to science, cremation is a more traditional option. The Lehigh County coroner's office authorized nearly 3,000 cremations in 2018, a number that increased in each of the previous five years.
Kathleen Ryan, executive director of the state's Funeral Directors Association, said cremations have become the preferred method for handling remains, partly because they can cost a third of the amount of a burial. About half of all remains in the state are cremated, she said, and this is expected to increase to 70% by 2040.
"It's more convenient and more flexible," she said.
The average price of a traditional funeral service in Pennsylvania has risen to $10,000, which does not include the plot and burial vault that most cemeteries require, Ryan said. While cremation costs less, it isn't cheap -- the average price is $6,000 with a service and $2,800 without, she said.
Paul Derlunas opened Allentown Funeral and Cremation Services a year ago, offering packages for as little as $1,295, something he's able to do because he is set up in the Hunsicker Funeral Home on Route 309 in Orefield.
Having worked in funeral homes throughout the Lehigh Valley for the last 15 years, Derlunas witnessed the stress families face after going through the worst day of their lives.
"Now they have to get thrown in front of a funeral home and find something on short notice," he said.
"Nine times out of 10 it's unexpected," he added. "Even when you're dealing with a situation where someone has a terminal illness, you are never really prepared to say goodbye to that person. So not only is there that emotional side where you are saying goodbye to that person, but there comes that financial aspect, unfortunately, as well."
While he wouldn't describe his clients as poor, Derlunas said many are on budgets and looking for a less expensive alternative to the traditional funeral, which is what cremation offers.
"You see the cost of a funeral is going up, but also the cost of living is going up. Everything goes up, so you get to that crossroad where, well, do we really need to have that nice casket or a couple days of viewing? People don't see the value in that anymore," he said.
Paying for any type of funeral can be daunting because the bill almost always has to be paid upfront. Derlunas said he typically gives clients 30 days to pay, but admits that policy has burned him sometimes.
"Last thing I want to do is sit down with someone who just lost one of the most important people in their lives and say, 'Break out that credit card,' " Derlunas said.
Sometimes, families don't know that financial assistance may be available. Minnich said the first place to check is with the deceased person's employer. He said people receiving Social Security benefits also may be eligible for burial or cremation assistance. The state also has a program that provides $750 for funeral expenses for low-income families that qualify. And churches, Minnich said, often can be helpful. Beyond that, there is social media.
"Heck, we've seen lots of people use GoFundMe and it's worked," Minnich said.
The mother of an Allentown man killed in a shooting this year was able to raise more than $10,000 for his funeral services through GoFundMe. And last year, the family of a man who died in a Monroe County skiing accident exceeded their $10,000 goal by more than $3,000.
But the results can be hit or miss.
In November, an Allentown woman set up a GoFundMe campaign after he father's death, posting: "Although my father wanted to make sure we were taken care of, he was never able to nail down a life insurance policy. Funeral costs are expensive and every little bit helps us to give him the send off he deserves."
One month later, only $60 had been raised.
Manuel Gamiz Jr. can be reached at 610-820-6595 or at [email protected].
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