Renata Richardson had already picked a name for her first child: Jazmyn Rose. She was stockpiling gifts such as baby socks, hats and a bassinet.
But the fetus died a month before she was to be born. Richardson was crushed not only by the miscarriage but because she knew she couldn't afford the cremation, which would have cost $600 to $1,200. She had lost her job as an advertising manager months before and couldn't find another in the slumping economy.
"That's the last thing I wanted to do for her, and I knew that I couldn't do it," she said.
Richardson, 25, of Davie, Fla., joined a growing number of people seeking help with burial and cremation costs as the recession triggers layoffs and foreclosures and rocks the family budget. Local governments — already cutting their budgets — are stepping in with taxpayer dollars.
The numbers are up at coroner's offices from Los Angeles to Dayton, Ohio, to Chapel Hill, N.C. Some states and cities have increased their budgets to meet the demand.
"They basically tell me they can't afford it," said Lt. David Smith, who tracks down families of the dead in Los Angeles County. "Everybody we do get ahold of is washing their hands of it."
The median cost of a funeral for a family, including casket and vault, is about $7,300. The cost to governments, which don't arrange funerals, can range from $150 for basic cremation to $1,400 for burial.
States don't require relatives to pay
Most states don't require relatives to pay for the burial or cremation of the poor. Governments step in if the dead had no assets and the families cannot pay or cannot be found.
Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Broward County in Florida, which is partially funded through property taxes, paid for the cremation of Richardson's baby.
The city of Dayton did the same for Debra Hunt, whose 32-year-old daughter, a cancer patient, died in February. Cremation would have cost $1,000, and Hunt had $400 in the bank after quitting her job with the Dayton school system to be with her daughter.
The need for financial help reached the point that Renee Donnell, owner of Alamance Funeral Service in Burlington, N.C., started a fundraising campaign to create a burial fund. To raise money, she has helped organize plays, dinners and a silent auction. Several families have applied for money since the fund was created in October.
Donnell said the economy is partly to blame; a woman whose husband had just lost his job was among those receiving money.
"We're seeing it so much more," Donnell said. "I decided we needed to do something about it."
In Dayton, the number of indigent cremations jumped from 37 in 2007 at a total cost of $24,000 to 53 in 2008 costing $34,500.
Over a six-month period, Los Angeles County handled 80 percent more indigent bodies from the coroner's office from 2007 to last year.
People not taking responsibility for deceased
At the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill, the number of bodies relatives refuse to take financial responsibility for has nearly doubled — from 17 in 2007 to 33 last year.
The economy is a common topic at meetings of the National Funeral Directors Association.
"Based on what we're hearing from our members, families are reporting more difficulty paying for funerals given the recent state of the economy," said Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the group.
Trying to pay for a funeral
More people are asking the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a South Burlington, Vt.-based watchdog group, how to pay for a funeral "without going into bankruptcy," said Executive Director Josh Slocum.
"People are unprepared for what the financial responsibility is going to be," said Clark County (Nev.) Coroner Mike Murphy, whose jurisdiction includes Las Vegas. "Some people are so financially strapped they don't have anything to give."
In the rough economy, more people in general are spending less on funerals and, in some cases, selling their cemetery plots.
Reduced revenue for governments
The recession is also reducing revenue for local governments. Layoffs and decreased consumer spending hurt tax revenue. Foreclosures cut into property taxes.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin proposed an additional $300,000 in his budget for indigent burials after the number exceeded estimates by nearly 240 last year.
The northwest Ohio city of Findlay — where the number of indigent bodies has jumped from four a year to as many as 15 — paid $11,745 for burial or cremation last year. This year, the city has budgeted $14,800.
Because of its own backlog, the Los Angeles County Morgue stopped cremating bodies from the coroner's office in February. The coroner is using $45,000 from another fund to pay for the cremations until another solution can be found.
Some coroner's offices also report a jump in the number of unclaimed bodies, whose relatives can't be found.
Local governments decide whether indigent bodies are buried or cremated. Many pick cremation because it is less expensive.
Overall, cremations are becoming more common. In Franklin County, Ohio, the number of cremations increased from 2,926 in 2006 — before the economic meltdown — to 3,318 in 2008. Burials fell from 4,591 to 4,378.
Cremation rate climbing since 1960
The U.S. cremation rate has been steadily climbing since 1960, when it represented 3.6 percent of dispositions. The rate increased from 33.5 percent in 2006 to 34.9 percent in 2007, the year of the latest available statistics.
Cremated remains are often held for a time to allow families to surface or to find the money to pay for the cremation. If that doesn't happen, the ashes are sometimes poured into a common grave with a simple marker or spread over a body of water, a mountain or a canyon.
Burials are in plots designated by the cemetery with little fanfare and often without markers. The Hunt family also held its own memorial service.
"It's sad," said Sandra Yocum, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Dayton. "There is something about honoring those who have died that is very deep in our human psyche. That's a loss to us as a whole."