Some Counties Are Seeing More Paupers' Burials, But Not Us...Yet

"Hard Times Come Again No More," wrote Stephen Foster, but they have.

And so some people, much as they like, can't afford to bury their dead. In Corpus Christi, for instance, requests for pauper burials are up 13 percent.

Once again, though, it looks like Houston is dodging the economic bullet a bit.

David Turkel, director of Harris County's Community Services Department, tells Hair Balls the only bump in pauper burials he's seeing is due to the weather.

"We haven't seen a spike that is unusual for this time of year," he says. "We usually do 30 to 50 burials a month. Right now it's closer to 50, and in the winter it was closer to 30." (If you can't afford a burial, you probably can't afford a/c.)

Harris County doesn't do any credit checks or investigations into anyone requesting a free burial, and they don't deny anyone, Turkel says.

The bodies are buried, after a service, in the county cemetary on the east side of the county, near Oates and Wallisville Road. (The county is mandated by state law with the task of burying paupers, but the city of Houston is about to pay $800,000 for maintenance and improvements at the cemetary, since half of those buried are city residents.)

The cemetary's been open since the 1920s, and is filling up fast.

"We've got about three or four more years and then we're full," he says.

Eventually, he believes, the county will switch to a cremation-first policy, in which full burial will be given only to those who ask for it. That would extend the life of the cemetary 30 years, and it's common in larger counties across the U.S.

But when the idea was first floated a couple of years ago, commissioner's court balked.

Turkel thinks reality will trump any qualms the next time the subject comes up.

"It's not 'if,' but 'when,'" he says of the move to cremation-first.

Of course, if the economic downturn continues, that timetable may have to be moved up.

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