DETROIT — Darlene Hardison would have loved to have a funeral for her father and uncle and bury them in marked graves at a Michigan cemetery. But she and her family could come up with only enough money to have Hoover Heags and Arthur Hardison cremated, then they left the remains to a Detroit funeral home to bury.
Authorities later discovered Heags' and Hardison's cremated remains among nearly 300 others in bags, boxes and other containers inside Cantrell Funeral Home, one of two Detroit funeral homes police and state licensing officials are investigating for allegedly improperly storing remains. Heags had died about a year earlier; Hardison had been dead for about two years.
"The funds were limited ... to paying house bills and we just didn't have the money to cover everything we needed," Darlene Hardison said at a cemetery where a memorial service was held for some of the people whose cremains authorities found in the now-closed Cantrell Funeral Home on Detroit's east side. "We were just able to do a cremation and that was it," Hardison said, wiping away tears.
Hardison's story illustrates how the funeral homes now under scrutiny may have ended up having so many remains and why it is that families didn't notice. Many poor families in the U.S. have been priced out of funerals and burials. People who can't afford those services are left with the cheapest option: cremating their loved one's remains and leaving it to a funeral home to dispose of them. Others may simply abandon relatives' remains altogether, leaving it to coroners and funeral homes to pay for cremation and disposal.
How to pay for indigent burials is a question that has stymied local governments across the U.S. Many states have programs that help pay for burials and cremations. Michigan pays up to $365 toward cremations and $485 toward burials without memorial services. Last year, a coroner in western Illinois resigned after facing criticism over his practice of keeping poor people's remains until their relatives could pay $1,000 ; state officials noted they had funds available to help cover burial costs.
In Detroit, where more than one-third of residents live in poverty, traditional funerals that include services at a funeral home, cemetery burial and headstone can top $5,000 on the low end, according to the Parting.com website. Frill-free direct burials are listed for about $1,300 and up. Estimates for simple cremations without services and memorials start at about $650.
Coming up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars to bury someone can be difficult for many families in Detroit, where U.S. Census Bureau figures show the median household income was below $30,000 in 2017 , compared with more than $61,000 nationally . Faced with the costs, some families have little choice but to leave a loved one's body to someone else.
"The idea of paying $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 for funeral services was really an impossibility for many," Sara Marsden, a spokeswoman for New York-based U.S. Funerals Online, a consumer information website and funeral home directory, said. "There isn't that life insurance or that burial insurance that's going to kick in and cover the cost."
The Associated Press could find no data on the number of remains or cremains abandoned by families at funeral homes in Detroit. The medical examiner's office in Wayne County, where Detroit is located, says it buries about 125 unclaimed bodies each year.
Authorities shut down Cantrell Funeral Home last April. In October, authorities received a tip that led them to the mummified remains of 10 fetuses and a full-term infant in the building's ceiling. Days later, the remains of 63 fetuses were removed from Perry Funeral Home in Detroit . Then in December, a suburban cemetery closed after authorities found remains of 300 fetuses and infants — handled by Perry — in leaky plastic containers.
The Associated Press has been unable to find a telephone listing for Raymond Cantrell, who owned the Cantrell Funeral Home when its license was suspended last April. The AP left a message Thursday seeking comment from a spokesman for Perry Funeral Home.
In Indiana, stay-at-home mom Linda Znachko started helping bury such abandoned remains through her ministry called He Knows Your Name. Znachko saw a need after learning about the discovery of a baby's remains in a trash bin in Indianapolis in 2009; it turned out a funeral home had dumped the remains along with others after going out of business. Znachko was shocked to learn that unclaimed remains would be buried in a mass grave.
"We live in America. ... I said, 'Why do we even have those?'" Znachko said.