Closer Look: A final resting place for all in county cemetery

It’s a quiet fall weekday morning at the Clark County Fairgrounds.

The fair is over and the whirling rides are gone. Dogs at the Clark County Animal Shelter are barking from the dog runs. Highway traffic can be heard in the distance.

Beyond the fairgrounds, beyond the animal shelter, is a fenced plot of land that encompasses four acres.

There’s a visible concrete marker standing in a back corner, clearly marking it as a grave. A handful of others are marked with a simple flat stone. A couple have decorations.

The property is the Clark County Cemetery and it is the final resting place of many who died and were not claimed, or whose families simply could not afford the expenses of a funeral and burial.

Restoring dignity to paupers

Since 2006, more than 40 people have been buried in the county cemetery. The Clark County Road Department digs the graves and maintains the property. Local pastors will perform a funeral.

For Clark County Road Supervisor Kevin Wilson, it’s a job he takes seriously.

“When I first took this job, Johnny Myers was the county judge,” Wilson said. “(The cemetery) was one of his pet projects when he took office. The old cemetery wasn’t maintained. He assigned me the task of cleaning the cemetery up, mowing it and fencing it.”

Myers also expanded the cemetery from about two and a half acres to its present size, he said.

“He was an advocate for the indigent,” Wilson said of Myers. “He always told me, ‘Kevin I know this is not part of your job but I know you will do what you think is right.’”

Myers found out about the state of the county’s cemetery during his second month in office when a request was made for an indigent burial.

“Some were buried in wooden boxes,” Myers said. “Some are buried in cardboard boxes and any means possible. I said enough of that. Together we embarked on a quest to mark these graves.”

Volunteers helped survey the property and mark graves. When there was a person to be buried, the county began having a service at the cemetery.

“We basically had a funeral,” Myers said. “We prayed for those people before they went to their final rest.”

For those buried in the county cemetery, the service is a chance to acknowledge them as people.

“It was my concern that they are buried with dignity,” Myers said.

Wilson said the services continue today with a local minister presiding.

Who is there?

Increasingly, those buried as indigents are those whose families can’t afford a funeral, Wilson said.

Clark County Coroner Robert Gayheart said his office typically has a half-dozen cases a year where a person dies in Clark County and relatives can’t be located or won’t claim the person’s remains. After exhausting all possibilities to find relatives, Gayheart said the person will be buried in the county cemetery.

More often, Wilson said he gets a phone call from one of the local funeral homes when they have a person or a family without money for a funeral. The county pays $350 per funeral, which includes a metal casket, and negotiated with a local company to purchase markers at $75 each.

In the old part of the cemetery, there are no records of who is buried or where their remains were placed. Many graves are unmarked.

“There are a couple graves that had a little four-by-four marker with their initials on it,” Wilson said. “Who knows who they were when they died?”

Wilson said he’s buried friends in the county cemetery. Wilson and the road department have buried as many as three people in one day, though they can go months without a burial at all.

Unusual stories and hard days

A few months ago, Wilson said he got a call about a person’s cremated remains which were found in a Lexington recycling yard. The deceased, Victoria Ann Phoenix, was the son of Lawana Boots, who was buried in the county cemetery in 2015, Wilson said, and they wanted to bury the cremains near Boots’ grave.

An investigation by the Fayette County Coroner’s office determined the cremains of Phoenix, originally Thomas Watts, were kept in Boots’ nursing home room until she died. Somehow, Phoenix’s urn was mistakenly taken to the recycling center, he said.

After conferring with the county attorney and other officials, Phoenix’s cremains were added to the Clark County Cemetery, next to his mother.

Wilson said there have been other instances where a spouse wanted their ashes buried next to the other, he said.

Though Wilson takes the duties seriously, getting the call from a funeral home is not something he looks forward to. It’s harder when the person to be buried is a friend, he said, which has happened several times.

“That was a tough day,” he said, recalling one. “He was the kind who was always happy and glad to see you. That was a sad day. It doesn’t seem right.”

Other states

How governments handle the situation of indigent or pauper burials varies greatly.

According to the Ohio Funeral Directors Association, a 2001 budget crunch forced the state government to end its indigent burial program, which paid $750 toward the costs. The burden is now on municipalities and townships. The local government must provide a grave and a stone or concrete marker with the person’s name, age and date of death. It also determines the type of funeral.

In March, officials in Sullivan County, Tennessee, said they had exceeded the county’s $10,000 annual budget for indigent cremations and burials. Sixteen cremations at $750 each totaled $12,000. The county’s board of commissioners voted to add $5,000 to the budget, according to the Kingsport Times-News.

Montana state law allows county governments to establish assistance programs, which includes burial, entombment or cremation of indigents if their combined resources and income are less than the cost of the funeral.

In Idaho, coroners or morticians may apply for a pauper burial to the county government.

In Los Angeles County, California, there is an annual burial and memorial service for the cremated remains of unclaimed dead. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 1,400 people were buried in November 2016 in the county cemetery. The grave will be marked with the year of the burial.

Fulton County, Georgia, officials told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution they bury about 300 paupers annually in the county cemetery. The county government pays less than $1,700 for a funeral director and the spot in the cemetery, but not a marker. Many are buried anonymously.

Clark County

Wilson estimates about 60 percent of those in the county cemetery are indigent themselves, while the rest are there because their family couldn’t afford a funeral. State law does not discriminate. The responsibility for indigent burials falls on the county.

According to Wilson’s records, six were buried during the 2016-17 fiscal year. The year before, there were 10.

“Clark County is very fortunate,” Clark County Judge-Executive Henry Branham said. “Some (counties) spend $4,000 per indigent burial. The two funeral homes (Scobee and Rolan G. Taylor) do it for us and they provide a (casket).”

For several years, the county has budgeted $4,000 for indigent burials. During 2016-17, the county spent $2,750, he said. The year before, the total cost was $3,750, he said.

Branham was quick to praise Wilson’s devotion to the cemetery and providing the service.

“He’s taken that on as a personal burden,” Branham said. “He wants it done with respect.”

Doing the right thing isn’t always an easy thing to do.

“It’s hard to take at times because a lot of these people don’t have any relatives,” Wilson said. “We respect the dead.”