Baltimore Pike Cemetery is the final resting place of at least one famous person, Phillip Sydney “Red” Ehret, who died in 1940. His
11 years as a pitcher in professional baseball — for teams that included the Cincinnati Reds — featured appearances in the World Series and one season, 1890, when he won 25 games.
Near the entrance to the cemetery stands a monument honoring military veterans from the North Fairmount neighborhood where Baltimore Pike is located. On Memorial Day many graves were decorated with flowers. But hundreds of people buried there were not remembered with flowers, whether or not they were veterans. Their graves don’t have markers bearing their names. They died poor. Their bodies were found in the city and unclaimed by family.
The city pays to cremate unclaimed bodies and bury the ashes. Their graves are identified only by metal rings 3.5 inches in diameter, each bearing simply a number — in violation of state law.
Unclaimed and unnamed
It is not a rare event for someone to die with no one to pay for a burial. In 2011, there were 86 unclaimed bodies in Cincinnati, according to Dr. Camille Jones, the city’s assistant health commissioner for community health and environmental health services. Some die on the streets, some in hospitals or nursing homes, and some in private residences.
When that happens, Ohio law requires the city or township in which the person lived to pay for disposal of the body. Since 2006, Cincinnati has used cremation rather than what funeral directors call “full body burial.” Cremation is cheaper.
“If a person dies and there’s no one claiming the body, we are notified by police or by an institution,” Jones said. “We have a contract with a funeral home to pick up the remains and to arrange for cremation of the remains and burial of the cremains.”
Of the 86 bodies, 12 were eventually claimed by family members, Jones said.
“There are a few relationships where you are required to claim it,” she said. “A spouse is required to claim remains. If a child is under 18, the parents are required to claim them. But a different type of relative, a remote relative, you’re not required. We’re certainly not encouraging that, because there’s only a limited amount of funding.”
The law requiring the city to handle burial of unclaimed bodies is not a social service program that provides for the burial or cremation of poor people. There is no provision by which low-income people can apply for the city to pay for funerals for loved ones.
“If you decide, ‘I can’t afford to pay for the burial,’ you can’t come in and say, ‘I would like you to take care of that.’ It’s just when people don’t claim the body,” Jones said.
“There are a lot of families that are in financial straits, but this is a public health matter. It is not an indigent burial program. The whole purpose of the program is public health. You want to make sure there is respectful but prompt care of human bodies.”
But “prompt” is a relative term, and sometimes cremation and burial of the ashes, or “cremains,” can be delayed. The city’s health department tries to find family members to claim, and to pay for, the disposal of bodies, Jones said.
“In a few cases, a family member finds out,” she said. “If it happens before they’ve done the cremation, we ask them to pay for the cost of transport. If it’s after cremation, they must pay for the cost of cremation. In legal terms, the city is claiming the body and has performed a service.”
Trying to find a way
Often a significant delay occurs between the discovery of a body and its disposal by the city. This is not a subject that anyone involved with the process wants to talk about.
The city has a contract with Schaefer Busby Doyle Funeral Home to pick up unclaimed bodies and arrange for their cremation and burial. Funeral Director Lee Doyle won’t comment on the process. He said the funeral home’s contract with the city prohibits his discussing it, but a copy of the contract provided by Jones contains no such restrictions.
City Manager Milton Dohoney didn’t return a call seeking information. Neither did City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
If last year’s total holds fast, someone in Cincinnati dies and his or her body goes unclaimed every five days. But it’s been a while since the cremains have been buried, according to Steve Bittner, president of the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society, which handles operations at Baltimore Pike Cemetery.
“We have not done any for the last several months,” he said.
John Bressler, family services representative at the cemetery, said, “They usually bring them in groups of 10.”
Jones acknowledged there is a backlog, with six deceased persons awaiting cremation and the cremated remains of 13 people awaiting burial.
“There are some,” she said. “We actually don’t have an average time between cremation and burial.”
The reason for the delay? Jones said it’s because, she learned last year, that the city isn’t handling the burials in compliance with state law. Now, the city is trying to figure out what to do next, she said.
The Ohio Revised Code requires cities to pay for the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, but it also requires something else.
The law states: “Such officials shall provide, at the grave of the person or, if the cremated remains are buried, at the grave of the person’s cremated remains, a stone or concrete marker on which the person’s name and age, if known, and the date of death shall be inscribed.”
The reason for the delay in burying unclaimed remains in Cincinnati comes down to money.
“The issue we have is the state law is written to say that, when the process is being done, it must be with an inscribed concrete marker,” Jones said. “We found out that many jurisdictions are not doing it with a concrete marker. The cost of a concrete marker is very high.
“If there is, in fact, a long time, it would be because of the marker cost. We were doing what many jurisdictions do. We were using a metallic marker. Now I know it’s state law. If there’s a delay, it’s not out of disrespect to anybody. It’s because we’re trying to find a way that meets state law and that’s sustainable.”
No one suggests that unclaimed bodies in Cincinnati are treated with deliberate disregard or disrespect. “As far as an individual, the cremation itself is the same as if your family brought you here,” said funeral director Lee Doyle. “The people are treated with the same care and respect.”
Money is the issue. The city’s contract with Schaefer Busby Doyle Funeral Home allocates $2,020 for pickup, cremation and burial of each unclaimed human body, Jones said.
“If the body has to be stored before cremation, there might be additional charges,” she said.
At that rate, the city has allocated enough money to pay for the cremation and burial of about 30 unclaimed bodies, less than half the number processed in 2011. And that doesn’t include the inscribed concrete markers that the city now acknowledges are required by state law.
Baltimore Pike Cemetery, a private, non-profit organization that contracts with the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society for labor and daily operation, is a stately institution. Its manicured lawns provide a place of repose and dignity for thousands of people, a place of remembrance and reflection for their loved ones.
Yet Section 18 of the cemetery is its least decorated. Hundreds of graves of unclaimed bodies lie there. The most recent burials by the city contain metallic rings, with no concrete markers providing the names and dates as required by state law. The earth cracked, with the spikes holding down some of the metallic markers, not far from a pile of plywood and lumber dumped nearby.
Jones said the city is studying ways to cover costs in a manner that complies with state law without incurring huge costs for concrete markers.
“We basically had one bidder for the concrete marker,” she said. “We’re researching what we can do to bring that cost down. We are investigating other options to bring the cost back down. The law said we must recover the body and cause it to be buried or cremated, and that will happen.
“It’s a sad position to be in. Friends can’t claim the body, but they want to have a place to go and mourn.”
A loophole in the language of the state law could provide a solution. Jones said the law only requires concrete markers “if the cremated remains are buried.” One way to comply with the law could be to not bury the cremains.
“We’re trying to see if we can purchase a mausoleum where we can inter the remains, where we can mark the vault. But since they’re not buried, we would not be required to have individual concrete markers,” she said.
How many more unclaimed bodies will wait as the city of Cincinnati decides how to proceed, conserving funds while complying with state law?
“I can’t tell you what time,” Jones said. “I can tell you we’re working on it.”