Florida's rise in cremations means growing revenues for some county governments
The only two certainties in life — death and taxes — are proving to be quite a windfall for county governments in Florida.
As record numbers of Floridians choose cremations over traditional burials, local governments are benefiting by collecting millions of dollars in "cremation review fees" that some funeral home and crematories say is unnecessary and merely a way to pad government budgets.
In 2006, barely 50 percent of Floridians chose cremation over burial, thus subjecting themselves to a mostly unnoticed fee that used to be $20 to $25 in the few counties that charged it. Today, with nearly two out of every three choosing cremations, the fees are producing more than $4 million in annual revenues for 48 county governments that are charging as much as $63 per cremation.
"It's really amounts to a death tax," said state Rep. Ken Roberson, a Charlotte County Republican and a funeral home director since the 1970s.
In 2014, Florida had nearly 188,000 deaths, with about 119,000 resulting in cremations.
The counties that charge the fee apply it any time a family requests cremation for a person who died of a natural death. That money is intended to pay for medical examiners who review death records before a cremation occurs. Medical examiners say it is a legitimate expense and requires more than state legislators may realize. They say they have caught errors that are otherwise uncorrectable given the finality of a cremation.
But Roberson doesn't buy it. He said medical examiners are mostly filing electronic forms verifying a natural death at little cost, and that shouldn't cost up to $63 per case. He said counties are over-billing families for a fee that has lost its relevance in the electronic age.
And not only does the fee get tacked on when families are most vulnerable, it can easily go unnoticed when the average cremation with a funeral service costs $6,100 (compared to $7,205 for a traditional burial), according to the National Funeral Directions Association's 2015 annual report.
"Floridians pay taxes and fees all their life; they or their families should not have to pay a fee when they prefer to be cremated," Roberson said.
In retaliation, Roberson is spearheading a bill in the Florida Legislature that would ban counties from charging any fee for cremations. The proposal has already cleared its first committee ahead of the Florida Legislature's next regular session, which begins Jan. 12.