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For indigents, a final public service

In a grassy clearing east of Old Lakeland Highway, under the shade of mossy oaks, rows of tiny tin markers line the graves of Pasco County's poorest.

The centuries-old Tucker Cemetery started as a burial ground for east Pasco's founding families. But in the past few decades, the front section has become the final resting place for the indigent and the unclaimed _ the deceased who lacked the money for a funeral or the kin to claim their bodies.

From this remote spot in Richland, a rural pocket southeast of Dade City, county government provides one of its least-known services. Last year, a county-hired funeral home made the final arrangements for 68 people _ a mix of burials and cremations, depending on family preference _ and the taxpayers picked up the $27,497 tab.

But like any other government service, this one is facing the pressures of growth and growing costs.

With burial costs ballooning and cemetery space shrinking, Pasco officials are switching to cremation only for most indigent burial cases. The remains would be given to family members or buried at Tucker Cemetery.

Basic cremation ($595) is about $1,000 less than what the county pays for burial ($1,675), and it will extend the life of a cemetery where three-fourths of the plots are taken.

"It's not just the cost but the space we have to use at the cemetery," said Adelaida Reyes, the county's director of Communities Services. "The space is more and more limited every year."

There will be a few exceptions. If the person belonged to a religion that opposes cremation _ such as Orthodox or Conservative Judaism _ the person would be buried.

The person's rabbi or minister would have to sign a form attesting to the religious objection. And as with all indigent burials, the next-of-kin must live below the federal poverty level, which is a monthly income of $778 for a one-person home.

The county would also choose burial in the rare instance of an unidentified body.

"There could be an investigation that could come up later," in which the body would need to be examined, Reyes said.

If a family opposes cremation but does not get a minister's objection in writing, or if the family is divided over the matter, the county would seek a judge's permission to cremate, Assistant County Attorney Kristi Wooden said.

In Pasco County and other parts of Florida, growth has created a dilemma over the dead.

Soaring land prices have made cemetery plots increasingly scarce and expensive. It's simply more lucrative to use land for homes or shopping centers.

At the same time, Florida has the second highest number of overall deaths in the country, in part because of the influx of retirees who spend their final years here. It's not uncommon for their closest relatives to be hundreds of miles away.

"This generation of individuals didn't plan for premature death, and they don't take the responsibility for other family members," said Jean Rags, social services director of Hernando County, where indigent burials are on the rise. "Years ago, if an aunt or uncle died, the family came together and took responsibility. That doesn't appear to be the case nowadays."

To save money and space at the Brooksville city cemetery, Hernando County switched in January to cremations only for indigent cases. Pinellas County made the same move four years ago.

"It was getting to be very expensive to do burials and we're running out of grave space," explained Cliff Smith, Pinellas County's assistant director of human services. "We decided we would rather use our resources to make sure they have a really nice cremation and use our (remaining) resources to provide services for the clients that are alive _ to help them with medical care, dental care, rent and basic living expenses, vs. spending so much on funerals."

Smith expected "a big outcry" over the change, but said there have only been a few objections. When family members feel strongly about burial, he said, they turn to churches, friends and relatives to help them make those arrangements.

Cremation costs for Pinellas run between $255 and $300, about a third of what the county would pay for burial.

Pasco County is paying considerably more _ $595 for cremations and $1,675 for burials _ under its current contract with Dobies Funeral Home.

Family Funeral Care used to provide less expensive services for Pasco County, with basic cremations running $325 and funerals for $575. But the company withdrew its services in April over a contract dispute. The only remaining funeral home willing to provide the service was Dobies.

"Even though his prices are high right now, we hope he will consider lowering those prices," Reyes said.

Funeral home director Thomas B. Dobies did not return calls for comment.

County officials plan to seek new bids soon, Reyes said. The new contract will reflect the county's new policy of cremation in most cases.

Officials say the county will continue to show sensitivity and compassion in handling the funeral arrangements for the indigent and the unclaimed. As with any other county service, however, they also have to spend the public's money wisely.

"We're spending taxpayer dollars," said County Commissioner Ted Schrader, whose district includes Tucker Cemetery. "We're the stewards of that. We need to be prudent."

Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhallsptimes.com.

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