On a blustery February morning, a gray hearse pulled up at Evergreen Memory Gardens. There was no tent and no flowers, no long funeral procession of weeping mourners, just a plain blue casket on a metal stand near a snow-covered pauper’s field.
Vivian McPhee, 83, had died a few weeks earlier at Central Baptist Hospital, with no family to claim her body or provide for her burial.
But McPhee wasn’t going to go to her grave alone or without some gentle words to see her there.
“We do the best that we can to have a full service for every individual,” said Virginia Kerr Zoller, a funeral director at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home.
So with Zoller and two interns standing nearby and two cemetery employees waiting a short distance away, minister Ronnie Hupp began his eulogy.
He considered it the most important thing he would do all day, he said.
“God gave her life. God loved her,” said Hupp, one of two ministers who works for Kerr Brothers. “We’re here to be the hands and the heart of Jesus.”
Because he was able to learn little about McPhee, Hupp spoke about what life was like in 1932, the year she was born, and read scripture, poetry and the inspirational essay The Station.
In Lexington, indigent funerals are paid for through a program overseen by Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn’s office, with funding provided by the urban county government.
The program provides $500 for cremation and $1,947 for burials. Of the latter, $800 goes to the funeral home and $1,147 to Evergreen Memory Gardens, where indigent people who die in Fayette County have been buried since before Ginn’s office took over the program three years ago.
When there is no family to claim the body and approve cremation, Ginn said, the dead are always buried.
Funeral homes provide their services at a discount in such cases, he said.
“They are providing a great service to our community at a very reduced price,” Ginn said. “They’re out of pocket a good bit of money. They’re not getting anything out of it.”
They do get the satisfaction of knowing they have served their community well, Zoller said.
“There are lots of families out there that, coming up with $1,100 (for the cemetery plot), they could as easily row a boat to the moon,” she said.
The numbers of such families are growing. Ginn’s office handles about 120 indigent cases a year, he said, but already that number has been exceeded with several months left to go in this fiscal year.
“Our indigent funds are depleted,” he said.
Because of that, Ginn said, his office is considering making changes next year, including the possibility of providing a flat amount — at least $500 — regardless of whether families choose burial or cremation.
“Eventually we have to look at the government dollars,” Ginn said. “There’s going to have to be some hard questions asked.”
He already talked with local funeral homes and is discussing the issue with city employees who handle budgeting, he said.
“The law really doesn’t speak about” who has the responsibility for paying for indigent burials, and many counties don’t have any money for it, Ginn said.
The graves of Fayette County’s indigent are marked at Evergreen with a small flat stone, engraved with the name and the dates of birth and death.
When his sermon ended, Hupp and the handful of other attendees at McPhee’s service watched as her casket was placed into a black plastic vault and lowered into her grave.
Hupp said such occasions are an opportunity for him to reflect on how fragile his own life is.
“Any of us could come to this point in life where we have no one, for whatever reason, that claims us or knows us,” he said.