W.Va. Indigent Burial Program Exhausts Funds

Mar 5, 2017

State funding to pay for indigent burials in West Virginia has run out five months before the end of the fiscal year, an official for a funeral directors group said.

Frederick Kitchen, West Virginia Funeral Directors Association president, told The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register that an increase in drug overdose deaths is to blame.

Kitchen said the Department of Health and Human Resources sets aside about $2 million annually for burial costs for indigent people. Funeral homes are offered $1,250 to cover individual burial expenses for low-income people.

"We've got five months with no money available," Kitchen said. "Funeral directors do what they can, but this creates a hardship for a lot of funeral homes."

Kitchen said the number of drug overdose deaths also has put a burden on the state medical examiner's office, which often takes up to three weeks to complete autopsies.

Gene Fahey, vice president at Altmeyer Funeral Homes which operates facilities in West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia, said drug addiction deaths have "exploded" over the past five years.

Eric Fithyan, funeral director and planner for James and Chambers funeral homes in the Northern Panhandle, said parents or grandparents will spend a fortune on a child or grandchild who is fighting an addiction.

"Then they can't have the funeral they want because they spent all their finances on the child or grandchild," Fithyan said. "In some cases they are taking care of the addict's children who have become wards of the state . It's almost a form of elder abuse."

Funeral director James Kepner in Wheeling said the toll of the drug epidemic is not confined to one age group.

"We have seen 50 to 80-year-olds who have overdosed," Kepner said. "It's not just the young people."

Kepner said the most difficult time for families dealing with this particular type of death is after they leave the funeral service.

"That's when they starting asking 'why?'" Kepner said.