Burials streamlined for dignity

Twin Cities organizer and funeral director ensure burials for the poor are done in style.

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Mourners gathered outside the True Vine Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis following the service for George Henry Smith Jr.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Silver and sleek, the casket at True Vine Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis had cool elegance.

Inside it was George Henry Smith Jr., 56, of St. Paul, a stroke victim whose family had exhausted proceeds from his life insurance policy and needed financial assistance for his funeral.

So, Dave Smith, the dead man's younger brother, went to Helen Williams, a north Minneapolis woman whom he knew to be a volunteer organizer of funerals -- more than 1,000 services in all since a violent summer in 2006.

Williams teamed with a young funeral director, Verlin Stoll, of Crescent Tide funeral home in St. Paul, to help Smith secure county funding and to deliver the gleaming metal casket, something truly special, in Dave Smith's view.

"We're able to put him down real decent," Dave Smith, 48, said before his brother's funeral began Saturday. "That's all you could ask for."

For four months, Williams and Stoll have worked together to ensure the poor are buried with dignity. For Williams, that means not in a corrugated fiberboard casket, but in one made of metal, an uncommon feature for county-assisted burials due to the price caps that jurisdictions put on funeral services.

Stoll can achieve that goal through Crescent Tide's low overhead. He doesn't operate a chapel, and he and his wife are the home's only employees.

Recently, Stoll and Williams have found themselves at odds with the state over a separate issue that could inconvenience some North Side families seeking Crescent Tide's low-cost, county-assisted option. He wants to expand in St. Louis Park, closer to the North Side, but state law requires him to install an embalming room in the new space even though he plans to continue preparing bodies at the St. Paul site.

An embalming room would cost about $30,000, which has put the expansion on hold.

In January, the duo sued the state in an effort to get out of the requirement. In the meantime, they forge on.

Smith was believed to be the 15th person, by Stoll's informal count, to be buried or cremated as part of the referral arrangement he has with Williams. He agrees with her that metal is the way to go, he said, and offers five colors as part of a price package he's assembled for county-assisted burials.

Smith was buried in a model known as Gemini Silver.

Mary Nelson, division director for financial assistance services in Ramsey County, said last week that county-assisted funerals typically lack elaborate touches. Caskets tend toward the low end, she said. And that makes the duo's ability to pull off a county-assisted burial with a metal casket "pretty amazing," she said.

Humble roots

Williams, 60, grew up poor in the segregated Deep South of Collinston, La., in a three-room shack with no running water. There, the "shoebox casket" -- cloth-covered cardboard with a flat top that lifts in one piece -- was known as a "state casket," she said last week.

A thrifty choice, yes, but demeaning, too, she said. A signal "you're a poor person."

Six years ago, when Williams first stepped into the role of volunteer funeral organizer, helping to arrange services for her grandson's close friend, 18-year-old Brian Cole, families could raise up to $8,435 in state and county money for funerals.

Today, Hennepin County offers up to $2,100 for a traditional burial and allows families to kick in another $1,400, for $3,500 total. Spend more and you lose county support.

The cap was in place in 2011 and helped contribute to a reduction in indigent burial and funeral costs, from about $1.5 million in 2010 to about $1 million in 2011, said Rex Holzemer, an area director for the county's Human Services and Public Health Department.

The number of burials and cremations that used county funds dropped from about 930 to about 680.

Because of the cap, Williams said, families who seek her assistance have been steered increasingly by funeral directors to cremation or are being told -- if traditional burials are possible for $3,500 -- that they'll have to come with an unappealing cardboard casket.

"To African Americans, a casket means everything," she said.

Asked whether the county cap has made traditional burials unworkable for indigent families, Holzemer said he did not believe so, and suggested a call to Washburn-McReavy.

Bill McReavy Jr. said his business is proud of its decades-long service to the poor and advised against comparing a months-old operation with one that has a long track record and full staff, equipment and facilities.

Does Washburn-McReavy have a metal-casket option for county-assisted funerals of $3,500?

After checking, he said that just such a funeral had been held days earlier. "That is as much as I can tell you," McReavy said. But he added that the firm's funeral directors are empowered to "change policy and procedure on a dime at any time."

At Crescent Tide, Stoll's county-assisted package is limited in one regard -- the burial plots are at a Brooklyn Center cemetery.

Sitting in a pew awaiting the start of Smith's funeral, Denice Turner said she was impressed with the casket. Dave Smith, who helped come up with the family's $1,326 contribution, did his brother proud, she said.

"Everyone deserves a nice funeral," she added.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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