When Jeanetta McNair’s brother died unexpectedly in March, she wanted to give him the funeral he deserved. But she was broke after having been recently laid off.
The funeral home McNair contacted gave her the paperwork to file a claim for public assistance to pay for a funeral and burial for her brother. But when she called the state office, she found out that long-standing program had been suspended since last July — a casualty of the state budget standoff.
“At one point, I was just going to leave him at the funeral home and just not accept any phone calls and just leave him there—let the funeral home dispose of him,” McNair said. “I agonized over that for three days.”
After a lot of frantic phone calls, McNair says she was able to borrow the $800 she needed to get her brother cremated.
“They allowed a few of us to come in the day before he was supposed to be cremated and just see him, just see his body,” McNair said.
The body of her brother was laid out on a metal cart in the funeral home’s concrete basement.
McNair, and a few friends and family said goodbye for fifteen minutes before they were ushered out.
The gathering, McNair said, was far from the church service she knew her brother wanted.
“You know, he was in a wrinkled white sheet,” she said. “It was terrible. It was just…just really terrible.”
Until the end of June 2015, people on certain kinds of public benefits could receive up to $1,103 for a funeral and $552 for a cremation or burial from the state.
The Funeral and Burial Benefits program cost about $9 million annually in recent years, according to a Illinois Department of Human Services spokesperson. In fiscal year 2014 the program served 8,649 families.
But over the last 10 months, the state budget impasse has left poor families in Illinois desperate. This has also made things difficult for the state’s funeral homes.
Charles Childs is part of the third generation of family members that have operated A.A. Rayner and Sons Funeral Home on the South Side of Chicago. He said, until recently, up to 10 percent of the families he worked with relied on public aid. Since last summer, he said he’s had to tell those families to find the money somewhere else or he cannot help them.
“We can’t continue, as a small, family-owned business, to keep that kind of debt,” he said. The funeral and burial benefit program suspension “is hard for all of us. Anyone who is in this industry. Anyone who cares for people. It’s very difficult.”
In Cook County, the Medical Examiner’s office has seen an uptick in the number of bodies of indigent people left unclaimed, according to the medical examiner’s spokeswoman Becky Schlikerman.
Charles Childs says his customers normally prefer a traditional burial, but more and more are opting for a less expensive cremation.
“It’s very difficult to see a family, that has been traditionally an internment family — who may even have grave spaces — that they can’t even use because they just don’t have the income.”
This is all frustrating to state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who also helps run a funeral home in Bloomington.
“My take as a legislator is unfortunately, even in death, not having a budget has a great impact. As a funeral home director, I know firsthand what this means, when it comes to trying to provide services,” Brady said.
Brady has been pushing for a somewhat unconventional legislative fix to the program.
“The service the state could provide, for substantially less money, is to enter into some type of agreement for whole body donation,” Brady said. “To our medical schools, our universities in the state, that need cadavers.”
For the near future, Brady’s idea will remain just that — the “Disposition of the Remains of the Indigent” Act, which would provide for this kind of donation, has been stuck in committee since February.
A different bill that would partially fund the indigent funeral and burial program has passed the statehouse and is on the desk of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Asked about the funeral and burial program by WBEZ, Rauner’s office wrote, “The Administration remains focused on enacting a truly balanced budget alongside meaningful reforms – and the Governor will continue negotiating in good faith toward a bipartisan agreement.”
None of this is comforting for Jeanetta McNair. She still wishes she could have given her brother the dignity in death she says he deserved.
“It was just terrible to just put him in that sheet and just throw him away. It was trash. That’s what it was. It was trash.”