Officials in a western Illinois county have ended a local coroner's practice of holding the remains of poor people until relatives come up with $1,000 following criticism from some residents that it amounted to holding the deceased person's ashes for ransom.
The Associated Press reported last month that Adams County Coroner James Keller was having people who could not afford to bury loved ones sign over their rights to the deceased, leaving them without the death certificate. He would have the body cremated and eventually bury the ashes if relatives couldn't pay the $1,000.
Keller said the policy was necessary because Illinois had halted or delayed payments for indigent burials several times in recent years due to the state's budget crisis. He said he was protecting taxpayers and funeral homes that were being stuck with the bill. He continued the practice even after the state resumed paying for the burials.
The Adams County Board on Tuesday approved a new policy that doesn't require families to pay the $1,000. Under the new policy, relatives of people who are indigent will sign an affidavit stating there are not assets, such as life insurance, to cover the cost of burial. The policy makes clear that death certificates will not be withheld.
Board member Robert Reich said the board also directed the coroner's office to submit expenses to the state for reimbursement. Illinois provides up to $1,655 for each indigent case — $1,103 for funerals and $552 for cremation and burial.
"I think we've done the right thing," Reich said.
Reich said the board had been unaware that state money was available until the Illinois comptroller's office, responding to the AP report, reached out to Adams County officials. Comptroller Susana Mendoza also called on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration to do more to inform funeral homes and local officials that state money — about $9 million this year — is available.
Quincy resident Ann Titus was among those who spoke out during a board meeting last month, saying she was "horrified" when she first learned of the policy, which she called "unnecessarily cruel."
Wendy Smith said that after her former husband, Chris Weible, died his family had a funeral with only his photograph and an empty box because Weible didn't have life insurance and the family couldn't afford the $1,000. Both Weible and Smith were on disability.
Titus said the board's action Tuesday was a good step. But she says the county also needs to determine whether there are families still waiting for cremated remains and provide them with the remains and death certificate. She also said families who paid the $1,000 should get their money back.