Lacking funds, families wanting burial forced to cremate loved ones

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

IN WASHINGTON STATE, except for families of veterans, victims of violent crimes and children who are stillborn or die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, next of kin are on their own when it comes to cremation and burial costs, said Jewell Steffensen, executive director of the state Funeral Directors Association.

"The burden is left with the family," she said, adding that funeral home directors can decide on the disposition of a body after 90 days of storage.

Linda Latimer, who died July 8 of Lou Gehrig's disease, made her sons, Ronald and Leonard, and primary caregiver, Trina Mills of Port Angeles, promise they would bury, not cremate, her.

Latimer's sons and Mills vowed they would fulfill her wish by the Oct. 6 deadline.

"Somehow, we're going to get the money," Mills said.

"If they don't have enough to pay for it after 90 days, I'll take out a loan. I'll use my car as collateral."

Linda Latimer's body is in cold storage at Drennan-Ford Funeral Home in Port Angeles.

Funeral expenses will be $6,122, Mills said.

Steffensen said she sympathized with the Latimer brothers.

"I believe in burial myself, not cremation," she said.

Steffensen's husband recently died, and she had him buried.

"I was brought up traditionally to be there, to say goodbye, to go to the cemetery," she said.

"I do visit him there. It's something tangible for me to do. I wish there was a program for those less fortunate, but unfortunately there isn't."

The Latimer brothers' insistence on burial and refusal to cremate their mother "is not commonplace," said Daniel Biggins, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, Mass.

"From the point of view of state and local government, the family absolutely would be on their own," he said.

"Indigent families are hard-pressed to find help from local, state and federal government to fund their funerals. From a public funding point of view, I would say, absolutely, there is a need for funding."

By Paul Gottlieb, Peninsula Daily News
More than two weeks after she died July 8, the refrigerated body of 60-year-old Linda Latimer is stored at a Port Angeles funeral home, waiting for the $6,122 burial she insisted upon and was promised several times by her indigent sons, Ronald and Leonard.

"Those were my mom's wishes," Ronald, 34, last week as he sat in the family's living room west of Port Angeles.

Latimer was terribly afraid of fire, having survived a serious blaze, and believed cremation went against her Catholic faith, said the Latimer brothers and her head caregiver, Trina Mills of Port Angeles.

While the Catholic Church prefers burial, it accepts cremation as an alternative if the ashes are buried, the Rev. Thomas Nathe of Queen of Angels church in Port Angeles said.

But her sons insist on following her wishes in an effort spearheaded by Mills as they hurdle their grief.

It's made the last two weeks especially hard on the brothers, generating a pain different from watching their mother slowly die of Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder that robbed her of movement.

The ancillary economic lesson it fostered hurts in a different way: If you want to bury someone you love, don't be poor, and don't expect public funding to help you cover the costs.

But the Latimer brothers are in the same situation any family member in Clallam and Jefferson counties would be in -- or anyone in Washington or across the country -- who wants to be bury and not cremate a mother, father, son or daughter and doesn't have the money to do so.

Lacking any county, state or federal public assistance for burial, they must incur many thousands in debt and go hat in hand to friends, family members and nonprofit social service agencies -- or cremate their loved ones despite any deathbed wishes they said they would honor.

Funeral home directors in Clallam and Jefferson counties, along with officials from state and national funeral home directors associations, said last week that most family members who first seek burial for their loved ones and can't afford it cave in to the pressures of cost and need for closure.

There's an 85 percent cremation rate in Clallam and Jefferson counties, and most families choose cremation when faced with the much higher cost of burials, said Steve Ford, the owner of Drennan-Ford Funeral Home, where Latimer's body is being stored, and Real Robles, owner of Kosec Funeral Home in Port Townsend.

The state of Washington discontinued burial assistance in the 1990s, Ford said, nor does Social Security pay for burials.

Clallam and Jefferson counties do not provide public assistance for indigent burials, though veterans relief funds do help veterans' families with burial costs, and there is funding available for indigent crime victims, county officials said.

Latimer, a homemaker her entire life, was never a veteran.

Her home is filled with Goodwill furniture and alley finds.

Allergic to morphine, she died painfully, Leonard, 36, said.

She was confined her to her bedroom the last three years of her life, was unable to sleep more than four hours and could barely move her mouth to speak when she died.

Wracked with the image of his mother being refrigerated, Ronald couldn't open his kitchen refrigerator for three days.

It stands a foot away from a kitchen table where two of the four seats are his mother's wheelchairs.

"The other day was the first time I felt like I could eat something," said Ronald, sitting on the living room couch that he sleeps on, in front of ceiling-high boxes filled with her jigsaw puzzles and favorite videos.

The family had lived on public assistance and Linda Latimer's Social Security, which paid the $560-a-month rent, while Ronald, Leonard and a team of caregivers took care of their mother full-time.

"They put their lives on the back burner to take care of their mother," Mills said.

Linda Latimer had four children, each separated by two years. A daughter, Teresa, 38, lives in Port Angeles, and James, 36, lives in Florida.

Ronald and Leonard, who have three children between them who live with their mothers, cite this measure of Linda's kindness: She sheltered a homeless man bereft of family, giving him a bedroom without a time limit until the man died of pneumonia.

His possessions, including a headstone he had planned to use for himself, became hers, and her sons hope to use it to mark her grave.

They figure it will save them about $600.

Mills and the Latimer brothers have scrimped together almost $1,500 toward funeral costs, including $400 Mills was going to spend to fix a broken tooth, $300 from St. Vincent de Paul and $280 from Linda Latimer's savings account.

Physical ailments including back injuries from a 2001 vehicle accident prevented Leonard from working for the last eight years, though he recently started a construction job doing "grunt work" for $12 an hour, he said.

Ron was recently diagnosed with a bone disease that's studded him with spinal bone spurs, and his doctor has told him he shouldn't work, he said.

No-frills cremation in Washington -- just burning the body and pouring the ashes in a box -- costs an average of $500 to $600 in Washington, and with a service can cost an average of $1,200, said Jewell Steffensen, executive director of the state Funeral Directors Association.

At Drennan-Ford, cremation can be "discounted right down to zero," Ford said.

But with burial, family members must buy caskets and pay for a cemetery plot, which can account for half of the bill, and all of that is paid for up front.

Latimer's burial at Mount Angeles Cemetery will cost $2,560, while the Drennan-Ford's bill will be $3,562, including a simple wooden casket, Mills said.

Faced with limited finances, it's "extremely rare" that a family insists on burial over cremation, said Ford, who would not discuss the specific costs surrounding Latimer's burial.

"If you want a lot more than you can afford, like with anything in life, you have to settle for something less," Ford said, adding that he's already discounted funeral costs for the Latimer brothers.

"Families generally come up with the reasonable conclusion that they will decide on cremation or they will come up with the funds that are needed. It happens one way or the other."

Robles has encountered two or three families who insisted at first on burying a family member.

When faced with a choice, they decided on cremation.

"One family was fairly destitute," Robles said.

"The family ultimately decided to cremate her. It was what they could afford. They didn't have any other option."

But the Latimer brothers insist on fulfilling their mother's wishes, Mills said.

"She made the boys and me promise her. She said, 'Don't let them burn me, no matter how long it takes to get the money.' I told her, 'We will not let them burn you.'"

"I hope the community will see the need of this family," Mills said.

Contributions for Latimer's burial can be sent to US Bank, 134 E. Seventh St., Port Angeles, WA 98362, care of Linda Latimer Burial Fund, Mills said.

"We talk about the cost of living all the time. What about the cost of death? It not only takes a toll financially. Death shouldn't cost a family more than grief."

________

Staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 25. 2009 10:30PM
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