The Burial of a Poor: What Really Happens When You Die Alone And Are Broke
At least once a month someone is buried in an unmarked “poor grave” in Christchurch. What happens if someone dies with no money or no loved ones? Vicki Anderson reports.
Leaning against the harsh wind, Dee crouches behind a tombstone in Christchurch’s Ruru Lawn cemetery and points to a remote place where his friend once took shelter.
Shaking slightly, he points to a poor grave, where this friend can now “finally rest”.
On Hereford Street in the center of Christchurch, an unofficial hangout on the homeless street whānau, he takes a cheeky pose and dances on the spot in front of “Bendy Wendy’s,” where the two become friends.
Dee has been going downhill since Dee was released three years ago, but he’s confident. Those who live on the street care for one another like family in life and death.
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People rushing into their lives from 9 to 5 avert their eyes from those sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. Others toss a few coins with the flicker of a compassionate smile.
As night falls, Dee describes how the city sheds its respectable demeanor like a winter coat and the mean streets become meaner. Some, like his friend, don’t get out alive.
Dee explains that some homeless people are looking for places outside the downtown streets, a chance to sleep away from the drunks stumbling out of pubs and kicking the homeless as they sleep on the sidewalk. After particularly brutal beatings, he and his friend sought refuge and sleep in the cemetery for several months.
When his friend died “two winters ago” from a combination of heart attack and use of synthetic drugs, he died broke and alone. A social worker helped organize a poor man’s funeral.
Such deaths are deeply mourned. Suicide under the whanau street is another hidden problem.
The Burial and Cremation Act of 1964 requires Christchurch City Council to “bury the bodies of poor people and people from hospitals, prisons or other public facilities at the request of the person in charge of those facilities”.
Sentimental items left on a poor grave will be removed by the council. Someone who has been buried in a poor grave is not allowed to receive a memorial or cross according to the rules of the council, as the “exclusive right to bury was not acquired”. The fee is only collected 60 years after the burial, so that no memorial may be placed on the grave until then.
Undertaker Mark Glanville of G Barrell & Sons Simplicity Funerals of Sydenham solemnly stares at the file of an 85-year-old who died in hospital with no known family member this month and says it is “unfortunately the common practice.”
“It’s very sad. They can be homeless, people with no loved ones, hermits or the elderly. I deal one a month and in the past five years this would have done at least 50 funerals of the poor, which I think is a high number.” . “
The graves of the poor are in cemeteries across the city and are at the discretion of the council.
“Ownership of the property remains with the local council,” says Glanville. “It’s close to $ 3,000 on a council lot for the funeral fee. If there are a few friends they can save up and put up a badge together, but they’ll have to buy the property first. You have to buy it from the council at current prices. “
When Glenn died alone and penniless, Art East founder and presenter Lis Rate-Smith said it was a “big shock”.
“It caused a lot of confusion about what would happen to his body in relation to a service. He had no will and no money … he was buried in a poor grave. Since it does not belong to anyone, a stone or a tablet cannot be placed on the grave. It’s really a shame, there was nothing that could represent his life. “
The man’s grieving friends gathered to host a fundraising art exhibition to pay for the property and place a tombstone on it.
“It was nice to look at,” says Rate-Smith. “So many of them were dependent on social benefits and struggled with themselves. They sold their artwork but didn’t hesitate to share. It was really something special. “
Glanville says if a person has friends, they can buy and pay off the property from the council. Some crowdfunds for funerals of the poor through websites like Givealittle or Memorialgifting.com. The City Mission and the local Rūnanga do “a lot to help” for the homeless.
“It’s close to $ 3,000 for a council lot for free funeral. It is not cheap to be buried. Depending on which one you go to, cremation fees in Christchurch range from $ 700 to $ 900. “
Sometimes at a service it will just be Glanville and “a cemetery worker or two.” He jots down the words he will say on his cell phone.
“It’s very simple. We put an obituary notice in the newspaper to see who’s coming from the woodworks. If no family reports, we make the funeral easier. The cemetery workers take their hats off. We stand around the grave. Sometimes a neighbor appears.
“If a cross is found on their belongings, I put a bit of religion in it. We have to do that, we have to be able to provide for them one way or another and ensure a dignified burial. “
A lot of detective work is done to determine if the person has an extended family or has left a will.
“The mayor’s welfare fund needs a loved one or family member to try to apply for it,” he says. “We were told that there are no relatives. Usually the person has passed away for some time and no one has claimed the body. We have other options for working something out, it takes a lot of time. Our hearts are with them. “
He encouraged everyone to “do some sort of funeral provision”.
“Even if you don’t have a family, you can invest a nest egg or some kind of prepaid scenario in a funeral fund for your funeral. Make a will, write down your wishes. “
If someone dies in the hospital and is not being alleged by anyone, Glanville is contacted by a chaplain or social worker.
“All we get is a name and nobody got that person out of the hospital. We put a lot of work into the details. Dealing with banks can be a real challenge that can take months.
“I still have one in my files and that takes up to three years when I work with a particular bank.”
A local lawyer also volunteers to help those who “die alone and are broke”.
A “legal loophole” meant when someone died wealthy but could not be buried for a “long time” either.
“When you have someone without a family who has $ 200,000 in the bank or owns a house, for example, it gets very complicated … we have to get comfort letters from the High Court to organize a funeral or cremation.”
This can take “six to eight months”.
“With the last one, it was a long time before we could bury the lady,” he says. “It’s awful. I just repeat, everyone should have a plan, it doesn’t cost you anything to do this through a funeral director, you write down your wishes, keep your files somewhere in your belongings.”
Every five years, the cemetery regulations and cemetery manual used by the local council are to be revised based on the 1964 Burial and Cremation Act.
“The next review is in 2023,” says a community spokesman.
“Items that are checked are triggered by changes in the law, operational requirements or inquiries from interest groups.”
Until then, our homeless and poor will continue to lie in unmarked graves, unapproved flowers, and sentimental items left by grieving friends that have been removed according to council rules.
In Sydenham, Glanville gloomily rolls a simple coffin for the funeral of a poor man.
“When you have someone in their eighties who is alone and doesn’t care about anyone or say goodbye … it’s incredibly sad. We care about these people, we’re only here to help people when we can.
“So life is.”
In Ruru Lawn Cemetery, a homeless man lays a simple red flower on his friend’s unmarked grave on a quiet Wednesday morning.