The Pauper’s Home

Usually when we think of the poor we focus on issues related to their daily needs.

What do they need?

A warm biscuit and a cup of coffee.

A coat, a pair of boots, dry socks, wool gloves and a stocking cap.

A place to sleep, a place to bathe.

Medicine for that toothache that won’t subside, or those voices that won’t quiet down.

Eyeglasses or hearing aids, a cane or wheelchair, perhaps.

We recognize that our homeless lack access to decent healthcare. When you can’t afford a roof over your head, you usually can’t afford the monthly premiums that good insurance requires. Or even bad insurance requires.

But rarely if ever do we give thought to that other matter the poor face — who is going to pay for burying me or my loved ones?

It’s a problem that’s creating all sorts of havoc in Illinois’ Cook County lately. The Chicago SunTimes reports that bodies have been piling up in the morgue and community activists are outraged. Medical Examiner Nancy Jones says they’ve got a higher number of dead than normal.

A pauper’s grave is what you get when you die poor.

Cook county allots $300 to get you the cheapest box possibly. It’s only a step up from the cardboard box that was your home here on Earth. But after taking a $13 million hit in revenue last year, Cook County’s morgue couldn’t even afford those anymore.

So the bodies were put in cold storage as they waited for delivery of boxes that weren’t coming because the company that provided the discount coffins hadn’t been paid.

Until pastors and people who care about the poor started protesting, and the press got wind of it, and now the money that was cut was restored and soon enough the poor will be shipped off to burial in the county graveyard reserved for people who couldn’t afford a home in this life or the next one.

There’s one thing in this world which isn’t ever cheap. That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t ever try to jew you down on. That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t say– ‘I’ll look around a little, and if I find I can’t do better I’ll come back and take it.’ That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person won’t take in pine if he can go walnut; and won’t take in walnut if he can go mahogany; and won’t take in mahogany if he can go an iron casket with silver door-plate and bronze handles. That’s a coffin. And there’s one thing in this world which you don’t have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. And that’s a coffin. Undertaking?–why it’s the dead-surest business in Christendom, and the nobbiest – Mark Twain – Life on the Mississippi


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  • AFRoger

    Indigent remains. That’s the technical term. And here in River City, there’s a process for having them cremated and quietly “disposed of” if family members can’t be found. Sometimes, no family member can be found; but that doesn’t mean the person didn’t have a community or people who knew and cared for them. Recently, one of our own ended up in this limbo.

    So at Operation Nightwatch, we’ve initiated a process requesting that we be allowed to eventually claim these remains, and to have individual memorial services for those who grieve and mourn. If we were their community in life, we should be their community in death.

    For over 25 years, we’ve also led a citywide memorial service to remember and to bless our fallen. It’s not only their acquaintances who have a need. People whose life’s work is walking with and supporting the people in our midst, they need a place to mourn and to give thanks, a place to shed their grief and continue on their noble work. If this isn’t happening in every city or county or borough, it should be.

    It helps a little if the indigent happen to be veterans. This week, Stevenson was buried with military honors–but no family. He used to come to worship with us. I remember his bright smile and firm handshake. I’d never met anyone named Stevenson before, not as a first name. Dignified name. Like the man he was.

    When Memorial Day comes, I’ll bring Stevenson flowers and prayer. He always liked to pray. Amen.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Roger: What a gift of love you give these who die without family at their side. You embody community for them. And thank you for this link about the funeral. I hope everyone who reads this blog will also read the story you link to. It’s a chilling reminder of how we need to honor every person we meet. We don’t know their entire story. We don’t know what hell they’ve walked through. We don’t know how high a price they paid just to survive. I wish I could have known your friend.