County to revamp policy on indigent remains

For reasons no one can explain or recall, the cremated remains of 37 impoverished Kitsap County residents have been stored on a shelf in the county morgue for as long as eight years.

Some have pointed to an unworkable set of guidelines established by the county in July 1993 as a contributing factor.

Now County Coroner Greg Sandstrom and the prosecutor’s office are working to create a more sensitive solution to an uncomfortable situation.

Before 1993, the state Department of Social and Health Services assumed responsibility for remains of people who died without means to pay for their own burial or known family members who could do so.

Then the Legislature decided counties should take care of that responsibility.

The Kitsap County Commissioners and other officials established guidelines for how to handle such cases, but the policy failed the people it was intended to serve.

“It has been an ethical, if not legal, dilemma for the Coroner’s Office to find a resting place for these indigent decedents,” Sandstrom wrote in a press release. “Some have friends or distant relatives that eventually claim them. However, there are many that remain.”

The guidelines generally require the coroner to investigate the death and try to locate relatives or organizations that could claim and bury the remains.

If the coroner can’t locate anyone, the remains are cremated, or sometimes buried in the case of a homicide.

Family members or other parties can claim the remains and compensate the county for cremation costs.

“Some family members have been able to go that route,” Sandstrom said. “If they can’t pay a funeral home, then they sometimes are able work out a plan with the county and claim their loved one.”

Sandstrom said the county handles about 12 such cases every year. Remains often are claimed, but some aren’t.

In those cases, the guidelines task the coroner with storing the cremated remains in the morgue for a year, after which they would be transferred to the county Parks Department for burial or “distribution” if no one has yet claimed them.

But guidelines are guidelines, not rules.

In reality, the unclaimed remains of the impoverished deceased never have been transferred to parks. They remain with the coroner.

“I would think parks are for the living,” said Sue Brown, a Bainbridge Island resident and volunteer who is disturbed by the county’s current indigent policy. Brown recently purchased and donated property at the old Silverdale Cemetery, which will be used to bury indigent remains.

Sandstrom inherited the policy when he took office in 1999. Discussions with the Parks Department didn’t shed much light on how to proceed — parks officials didn’t understand why they had been given the responsibility and were unsure of appropriate places to bury or distribute the remains.

Now Sandstrom is working with the county Prosecutor’s Office to craft a new policy. He plans to ask the County Commissioners to rescind the existing policy and replace it a more sensitive version soon.

The new policy would allow other burial alternatives, including the ability to accept donations like Brown’s recent gift.

The new policy also encourages the Coroner’s Office to research whether the deceased was a military veteran. If so, veteran assistance funds could be pursued to help pay for the burial.

“We’ve just been dealing with this policy that doesn’t work,” Sandstrom said.

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