Hinds Co. paupers’ cemetery full: what to do?

Published 2:44 pm Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Each shoebox-sized concrete slab in the paupers’ cemetery at the inmate work center in Raymond bears a number — no name — to identify someone who died in Hinds County but was never claimed by family or friends.

The cemetery is full. Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart has been told there’s no room for five bodies in her custody.

Concerns that the cemetery was reaching capacity were voiced to county supervisors as early as 2007, when the coroner reported a record year for unclaimed bodies.

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A committee of the coroner, county supervisors, administrator and the chief deputy is searching for a solution and will meet this week to discuss options.

The Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the cemetery and digs the graves, wants to expand it onto adjacent, undeveloped land bought for a regional jail. Plans for that were scrapped last year.

“If we ever are to expand, now is the time because we own the land,” Chief Deputy Steve Pickett said.

The sheriff’s request for three to five acres has the approval of some supervisors. But others want to sell the whole 20 acres to recoup the purchase price — about $5,000 an acre, in 2008.

“I don’t want to do it because the economic development people told us we spent too much for that land to be used as a burial site,” board President Robert Graham said. “We’re looking for a buyer who might build a private prison. So we need to be very, very careful before we start putting bodies there.”

Supervisors Peggy Calhoun and Doug Anderson have pledged to back the sheriff’s request, saying any remaining acreage could still be sold.

“We need to expand, and we could allow the sheriff to get about four or five acres and then use the other for farmland,” Anderson said.

Supervisor Phil Fisher said he supports using some of the land for the cemetery, though he isn’t opposed to other alternatives.

“It does not make sense to buy more land. I think we should set five acres aside and use that,” he said. “Cremation is an option only if it is cheaper than burial.”

Supervisor George Smith, who heads the paupers’ cemetery committee, said he hasn’t made up his mind.

“We’ll look at properties the county owns. First we’ll look at the same spot, and if it isn’t right, there are more out there,” he said. “If none of those work, we’ll also look at state-owned land.”

Graham said the committee also will look at alternatives such as cremation or “vertical burial” — burying the bodies upright.

It costs taxpayers $300 to bury a body in paupers’ cemetery and $50 to transport it. Inmates dig the graves to cut down on cost, and there are no headstones or flowers.

According to a handwritten ledger kept by the Sheriff’s Department, the burial of unclaimed bodies goes back at least 50 years. More than 300 people have been buried there — women and children, infants and elderly, known and unknown.

“Sometimes hospitals may call about a patient who died, and family members do not claim the body for burial,” the coroner said. “Sometimes we have nursing homes or personal care homes who have elderly people who have no family contact information and want to see if a person can be buried as a pauper.

“Some are homeless people who have been estranged from their family for some time.”

The recession has brought other people there.

“Sometimes, the family will be located, but because of the economy, people now are telling us they can’t afford to bury this person,” Graham said.

Graham said he plans to suggest the county set up a special fund to pay for indigent burials. He isn’t sure how money will be collected.

Fisher said he has concerns about setting up an indigent burial fund.

“Mr. Graham’s idea gives no funding source, therefore I do not see how this will work,” he said. “If he has a budget-neutral source, I’d listen. Sometimes, government wants to create something but not fund it — to give the appearance of action.”