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Relatives shirking burial burden 'a fairly widespread issue'

By Rick Armon

McClatchy News Service

AKRON, Ohio -- When Thomas Tellis died, nobody wanted him.

The 89-year-old Canton, Ohio, man had been ill for years, living his last days at a nursing home before being transferred to Mercy Medical Center, where he died in March.

His body was taken to the coroner's office, where investigators, after some effort, tracked down a daughter who was living right there in Canton. But the daughter had been born out of wedlock, was raised by another man, and had no interest in taking on the responsibility of burying a man she never called "Dad."

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So the remains of Thomas Tellis became somebody else's problem. It's a story the public knows little about, yet one coroners and medical examiners deal with on a regular -- and some say growing -- basis.

Some bodies are never claimed. Every so often, that's because there are no survivors. But in other instances, family members simply turn their backs on the dead -- perhaps because they had no relationship with the person to begin with, or perhaps because they can't afford a funeral. Or, in rare cases, they just don't care.

"It's a fairly widespread issue," said Dr. Lisa Kohler, a Summit County medical examiner. "Either the family members cannot or will not take financial responsibility for burying their loved one, or we cannot find next of kin.

"In some of these situations, we do find family members that readily acknowledge that they're capable of providing financial assistance, but want nothing to do with them. That seems to be a fairly common situation."

Money plays a role. Some people live paycheck to paycheck and can't afford a funeral. The average cost of a funeral two years ago was about $6,500, not including cemetery costs, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

"We have occasionally run across this problem and almost 90 percent of it is economics," said Dr. Robert A. Malinowski, the Ashtabula County coroner and president of the state coroners association. "The other 10 percent is that they just don't like each other."

The deceased still receives a burial. For example, veterans qualify for a free burial plot in a national cemetery. If the deceased had some money or property, the case will go through Probate Court and money will be assigned to pay for a funeral. When no money is available, local municipalities are responsible for paying the cost.

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