Social Workers' Final Act of Service: Respectful Burial Arrangements for Indigent, Unclaimed, and Unidentified People

By Castex, Graciela M. | Social Work, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Workers' Final Act of Service: Respectful Burial Arrangements for Indigent, Unclaimed, and Unidentified People


Castex, Graciela M., Social Work


Although little discussed in the professional literature, social workers have long been involved in identifying resources and making final arrangements for clients who die without an estate or heirs to assume economic responsibility; who may have been institutionalized; who are unknown to the community; or whose body may be unclaimed for burial. This task can be demanding, if only because social workers must often locate resources quickly if they are to prevent a client from being buried with no ceremony of interment and frequently in an unmarked grave or in a grave marked only by a number in ground set aside for the burial of indigents--a "potter's field."

A person's respectful final disposition is important for the living, for the deceased, and, it may be argued, for the health of the larger society. Knowledge that respectful final arrangements have been made may offer psychological comfort to a client at the end of life, help a grieving family and friends during a time of sorrow and remembrance, and also mark the community's recognition of and respect for our common humanity. This article highlights the challenges faced by many social workers as they attempt to prevent undignified burials when requested to make final arrangements for terminally ill or deceased people, especially those who are indigent, unclaimed, or unknown. ("Burial" here refers to any form of final disposition: interment burial at sea, cremation, and so forth; "indigent" is a legal term often used in reference to people whose estates lack the resources to pay for final arrangements independently.)

Death is destiny for all of us; for most of humanity, there seems to be an almost universal impulse to attend the final mystery, the final journey, of death with ceremonies of respect and remembrance, implementing local traditions and commonly seeking religious or spiritual guidance and solace (Aries, 1974; Kastenbaum, 2004). Remembrances of the dead connect us to the past and honor the influence of those who have departed in helping us become what we are today. Observances of respect for the departed touch our common humanity; common sentiments such as "there but for the grace of God go I" and "as I am, so you will be" reinforce humility and empathy. In sum, as important as they are for emotional reasons, respectful death rites and burial practices are threads in the fabric of community that holds a society together.

Absent substantial policy reform at state and national levels, the need for "preventive" services to ensure respectful burials for all people may increase dramatically in the future. In part, an increase in indigent burials is a result of population increase, especially among the older-age cohorts. But the primary cause of an indigent burial is poverty at death.

Therefore, demography is only part of the story. Various social and political factors contribute to indigence at death; examples include the current financing of the U.S. medical system, which leaves 46 million people without insurance coverage (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Lee, 2005); the political climate, which supports the diminishment of social safety nets; increasing numbers of incarcerated individuals with very long sentences, resulting in prison deaths; changes in family structure resulting in fewer offspring or other relatives available to make final arrangements; increasing numbers of immigrant residents who may have few social supports and no extended family in the United States; homelessness and all that it implies regarding lack of social attachments and unmet basic needs; and a system of payment for long-term care (assisted living, nursing, hospice, and so forth) that virtually guarantees the impoverishment of many people at death.

PRIVATE PAIN, PUBLIC BODIES

Every place where groups of human beings live will be faced with burying people who have no resources or friends or relatives to attend to their final arrangements or who may be entirely unknown to the community. …

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