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Burial insurance can avert shame

Thursday, October 06, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times

I’ve bought three modest burial insurance policies:

A policy covering my mother; one covering an unpredictable brother; and one covering an unmarried son — which reminds me that I should probably add one more policy for a single daughter who can’t find a job with benefits.

Although most of us know the only things you can be certain about is death and taxes, we live like death is a maybe.

I’d probably be better off setting aside the burial money in an escrow account since burial policies can end up costing more than they are worth. But I grew up in the era of the insurance man.

Once a month he would show up at our door in a dark suit, striped tie, and shiny shoes, toting a briefcase full of papers. My mom or dad would go to a shelf and pull out the small insurance book. After money was passed from my father’s pockets to the insurance man’s hands, he would write the amount in the ledger and sign his initials.

If there was no money when he knocked on the door, we were cautioned to be still and quiet, and my mother did not answer the door. Maybe the insurance man would think no one was home and come back in a couple of days. Because in my parents’ minds, the worst thing that could happen was that the policy was marked “lapsed.” If death came under those circumstances, and they had to pass the hat, it would be nothing short of a disgrace.

Most low-income people who found themselves in this situation of burying an uninsured estranged relative turned to the state or county for assistance. But budget shortfalls have erased that option.

Meanwhile, the number of cadavers donated for research has fallen off considerably. In 2010, the Anatomical Gift Association (AGA) received 483 cadavers, and the group’s executive vice president, Paul Dudek, called that number “not nearly enough.”

So there’s little wonder that someone dug up a 126-year-old state law that requires the Cook County medical examiner to turn over unclaimed bodies for medical research.

Under a deal struck between the AGA and county government, unclaimed remains will be kept for only two weeks. After that, the body will be donated to science.

“We are talking about a very small population,” noted Jessey Neves, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Board president. “The donation is only made after the two-week period. If the family disagrees, it is not given to the AGA.”

There is a grace period, so to speak.

The association is required to hold the body for seven days before embalming, and for another 60 days before the group can give the body to a medical facility. And if the deceased’s family still cannot pay but disagrees with it being used for science, the body is sent back to the morgue.

Spencer A. Leak Sr., whose funeral home has served thousands of grieving families over the years, is not surprised it is has come to this.

“I was expecting this to happen, because we had been told earlier that the medical examiner’s space was filling up with an inordinate amount of unclaimed bodies because of the economic situation,” he said.

“This puts pressure on families who are trying to at least find some means or resources. They are going to have to face the fact that their loved ones are not going to be given a proper funeral.”

Neves denies that space was a consideration in determining the time frame for turning over unclaimed bodies.

Still, Leak points out that the situation is going to get worse since the Illinois General Assembly cut the $1,103 stipend it once paid funeral homes that accepted remains even though families did not have the full cost of the funeral.

“That is about one-third the cost of a basic funeral,” Leak said. “We are trying to lobby the General Assembly in the veto session to restore those funds.”

Additionally, Leak said he is encouraging churches to hold seminars on the availability of inexpensive insurance.

“You can get a $5,000 policy for a small amount and the family would not have to put the burden on the state or churches,” Leak said. “Our grandmothers would have been totally embarrassed if they did not have a burial policy.”

That is so true.

The dead won’t care. But the living are being put to shame.

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