The Legal Rights of Indigent People for a Burial in Pennsylvania

By LD Withaar - Updated August 24, 2018

Losing a loved one is tough. Having to scramble to cover the cost of a funeral makes a bad situation worse. But the reality is that funerals are expensive and, if you’re among the 75 to 80 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the cost of one can be overwhelming. Estimates on the average cost of a funeral in the U.S. range from $7,200 to over $8,000. The cost of cremation in Pennsylvania alone can run $500 to $3,000.

Get Funeral Assistance in Pennsylvania

There are ways you may be able to get help with funeral costs in Pennsylvania. The state's Department of Human Services pays up to $750 to the funeral director for eligible decedents. The person who passed has to have been collecting Supplemental Security Income benefits or receiving cash benefits from DHS before death. Nursing home residents may also be eligible if they received SSI or nursing home care benefits prior to Jan. 1, 1973 continuously until their death. DHS can be reached at 800-692-7462.

Get Funeral Assistance Nationally

The Social Security Administration pays a death benefit that’s not based on need. Anyone who worked long enough to be eligible for Social Security benefits is entitled to it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s only $255. Notify the SSA of the death by calling 800-772-1213 or going into your local SSA office. This benefit is usually paid to the surviving spouse but it may be paid to a child if there is no surviving spouse.

If the deceased was a veteran, contact Veterans Affairs. For a non service related death, it provides $762 or $300 depending on whether the decedent was in a VA hospital at the time of passing. An additional $762 gravesite and internment allowance is also available.

Check with the nearest American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post. They’ve both been known to take up collections to help with the funeral costs of a fellow veteran. Also consider checking with local churches and other charitable organizations. But be aware that any assistance you receive from other sources may reduce the amount of funeral assistance Pennsylvania gives you.

Lower Funeral Payments

If you’ve never planned a funeral before, it may come as a surprise that every single part of the process has a separate fee. Embalming is one fee, burial or cremation is another. The price of a casket is separate from the vault. But a separate price for everything can work in your favor. For example, Pennsylvania requires that a body be embalmed, put in a sealed casket or refrigerated if it’s not cremated or buried with 24 hours of death. So, depending on timing, you may be able to eliminate the cost of embalming.

Caskets are usually the single largest expense. But Pennsylvania does not require a casket for burial or cremains. Additionally, burial on private property is allowed in some parts of the state, and Pennsylvania has no laws about where you can scatter ashes. However, counties, towns and individual cemeteries may have their own rules, so be sure to check with the local municipality and the cemetery, if applicable, These are not pleasant things to think about, but it’s time to let your head, not your heart, make the decisions.

Eliminate Funeral Payments Entirely

If the cost of a funeral is still unmanageable, consider donating your loved one’s remains for medical research. There are seven medical schools in Pennsylvania. A company called Science Care can help if you don’t live in Pennsylvania but your loved one did. When you donate a body for medical research, the institution handles all costs involved including transportation. If you’re going to go this route, you have to do it quickly. A body that has been refrigerated for a long period of time may not be accepted for medical research.

If all else fails, Pennsylvania cremates remains that are unclaimed after 36 hours. The cremains are stored at the morgue for three months. During this time they can still be claimed. The individual county then decides what to do. Cremains may be stored elsewhere at this point. After 10 years, or after they run out of room, some counties scatter ashes at sea or in the mountains. Others bury them in mass graves.

It’s a sad ending but increasingly common. Many states and counties report dramatically increased numbers of unclaimed bodies. Reasons range from family feuds to no family members left to claim the body. But the most common reason is that the survivors cannot afford the cost of a funeral.

About the Author

LeDona Withaar has over 16 years’ experience in the legal services industry. She worked in the National Association of Securities Dealers alternative dispute resolution program and later ran its mediation program for the western U.S. She was a securities compliance specialist in Capital Group’s legal department and later handled building code and ADA compliance at a commercial interior design firm. LeDona has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She currently owns and operates her own small business in addition to writing for business and legal publications.

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