What’s a Pauper’s Funeral? History & Why They Exist Today

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For many people, the word “pauper” makes them think of the Bible. Proverbs 28:6, says, “It is better to be a pauper walking in integrity than a dishonest man, even if he is rich.” The Bible defines a pauper as someone with a strong moral code. 

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Or, the word may also make you think of a character from a Charles Dickens’ novel. A Dickens’ “pauper” is one who lives on the streets and in abject poverty. The author almost always gives the character a worthwhile attribute to balance out their lack of wealth.

Historically, a “pauper’s funeral” would occur when a person without money or family dies. Someone in the community would step in and take care of the body. This was often done without ceremony or formality.

Do paupers exist today? According to the “The State of Homelessness in America” report, an estimated 552,830 people are homeless in the U.S. Although this amounts to less than one percent of the population, these people should not be ignored. Homelessness is a serious issue. There are large tent camps in many of the major U.S. cities. 

 Most people no longer use the term “pauper” to describe someone who lives on the street. It’s considered an out-of-date and disrespectful term. But the problem of homelessness is still an issue that has not been solved. So there are still “pauper’s funerals.”

Keep reading to learn about funerals for impoverished people. This article will talk about the historical practices of these services. And also discuss how these services are managed in current times. 

Pauper’s Funerals Explained

A pauper’s funeral occurs when the deceased’s survivors are unable to afford the cost of a funeral. It may also happen if no survivors can be located for a person who died. Or it could happen if the family refuses to claim the body. 

History 

The term pauper’s funeral originated in Great Britain. The term can be traced back to the 1580s. During that time, under the “Poor Laws”, destitute people were buried with funds from a government program.

It is not clear whether the words "pauper’s funeral" were ever widely used in the United States. Instead, “potter’s fields” are referenced in local history records. 

The term “potter’s field” came from the Bible. It refers to a “field of blood” that Judas purchased with the coins he received for betraying Jesus. After Judas killed himself, the field was used as a burial ground. The bodies of strangers, criminals, and the poor were interred here. It is called a “potter’s field” because the land was rich in red clay. That clay was harvested by the area’s potters for their work. 

With a little research, you may be able to find if there is a potter’s field in your area. Lincoln Park in Chicago is probably the most famous potters field. Thousands of people are said to have been buried in the area now covered with baseball fields.

And there are hundreds of thousands of dead buried on the island of Manhattan. Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, and Bryant Park were all originally potter’s fields. Nearby Hart Island was used for many purposes throughout history. At times it was a prison camp, a psychiatric hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium, and a drug rehabilitation center. It was also a potter’s field.  

Purpose

The purpose of a potter’s field (or a pauper’s burial) is clear — it was a space to bury dead bodies.

It was common knowledge that deceased bodies were not clean. Our forefathers knew enough to understand that these bodies would spread disease. Dead bodies are also displeasing to look at, and emit a foul odor.

For the good of the public, local officials had no choice but to care for these bodies. Often this meant organizing a burial for those that couldn’t pay for one. 

ยป MORE: Keep a loved one's memory alive by creating a diamond from their ashes.

 

Pauper’s Funerals Today

Times have changed, but this issue has persisted. There are still people who live in poverty. Many families are unable to pay for funeral expenses when a person dies. And sometimes a person dies, and no one claims the body.

For the safety of the community, these bodies need to be buried or cremated. This is usually done at the expense of the local government. But there are some charities that help with funeral costs for those without the necessary funds. 

Why and where they take place

According to a 2019 article in The Economist, local governments have been struggling to decide what to do with unclaimed bodies. Each government is left to make its own decision. These decisions vary from region to region. 

West Virginia has had an increase in the number of unclaimed bodies in recent years. A lot of that increase is due to the opioid epidemic. There is a state fund that was set aside to bury those individuals, but the fund has been depleted. 

The city of Los Angeles handles unclaimed bodies differently. If a body is not claimed after a certain period, the city pays to have the body cremated. Cremation is typically cheaper than burial.

The Economist also notes that unclaimed bodies in North Carolina are cremated. After three years, the cremains are scattered in the ocean.

The poor and unclaimed in Seattle are cremated. The local government stores the cremains until a burial ceremony is held. Those services take place every other year.

Arizona has more unclaimed bodies per capita than any other place in the United States. It is not clear how the local government officials handle the bodies. But those working in the area have said that most of the unclaimed worked as migrant workers. They may have no local family to claim the remains. 

Hart’s Island is still the burial place for the remains of destitute or unclaimed bodies in the New York area. Inmates from Rikers Island Prison dig the grave and bury the dead on Hart’s Island. New York’s Department of Corrections has jurisdiction over the area currently.

But some city officials want to transfer the domain to the New York Parks Department. The same city officials would like to make it easier for the public to visit Hart’s Island. There they can pay respect to the dead who are buried there.

Cost

The cost of funerals in the United States is rising steadily. But these costs do not reflect the amount that is spent burying unclaimed bodies. The average funeral cost in the U.S. is around $11,000. But most of those costs go to the specific items an individual or family wants. These might include a concrete vault, embalming, public services, and a headstone.

Cremation is typically a cheaper option than burial. Cremation costs (including a simple service) average $1,600 but may vary by location. 

The least expensive option is a direct cremation. A direct cremation occurs almost immediately after death. Since there is no cost for storage or embalming, a direct cremation may cost as little as $450. 

Another option today, if you can't afford a traditional funeral but still want to hold a ceremony, is a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs. When paired with direct cremation or burial, this option costs less than a standard, in-person funeral.

There is not a record of the total spent by governments and charitable organizations to take care of unclaimed bodies. The amount of money needed for the task is dependent upon the process each government uses. And is affected by the population of each area. 

Even simple tasks completed by the local government incur a cost. Some jurisdictions store the body for a certain period, waiting for family members to claim it. Other places bury the deceased, which requires the purchase of a casket. Both of these choices, and many other options, require the government to use its resources. 

But the governments are not disposing of the bodies themselves. They have to enlist the help of local funeral homes and morgues. Sometimes funeral home directors are given a small amount to help offset the costs of burial or cremation. Other times, funeral directors complete the work as an act of kindness. 

Taking Care of Final Arrangements for the Less Fortunate

There is value in every human life. It is important to take care of the final arrangements for the unclaimed and impoverished. Whether the name of the deceased is known or not, the body should be treated with respect. Proper care should be used for the burial or cremation. 

Most people do not like the idea of being buried in a pauper’s grave or potter’s field. Even if you would rather be cremated, you still envision this occurring under the care of your loved ones. 

One thing that we can be sure of is that one day we will all die. Make sure that your body is taken care of the way you want it to be done. Start your end-of-life planning today. You can prepay for your funeral expenses. And you can also choose whether you wish to be cremated or buried. You can choose what verses you want to have read at your funeral, and you can pick the songs that will be performed. Making these decisions now will help your family during a difficult time. And that is a great gift. 


Sources

  1.  “The Bible.”
  2. “The State of Homelessness in America.” The Council of Economic Advisers. September 2019. www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/The-State-of-Homelessness-in-America.pdf
  3. “What happens to those who die poor or unclaimed in NYC?” 15 June 2019. www.economist.com/united-states/2019/06/15/what-happens-to-those-who-die-poor-or-unclaimed-in-nyc 

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