Buried with dignity

Travis County program gives indigent deceased proper funerals.

The man, Azure Hobbs remembers, had no family listed on his referral from the medical examiner’s office.

In some places, that means he would be buried alone, with no loved ones, no ceremony, nothing special to remember him by. But as part of her work with the Travis County Indigent Burial Program, it was her job to track down a family member or friend, anyone who may be interested in attending his funeral.

The program, which buried 1,285 people from 2007 to 2015, is meant to ensure that even those with little to no financial resources who die within the county still receive a proper burial. And it is run by three caseworkers, including Hobbs.

She found no family members for the man, whose case she handled last year, but his hospital records did list someone who may be interested in attending the burial: a woman who had been his significant other for some part of his life. She lived in New York and he lived in Central Texas, but the two knew each other from their youth in California and in recent years had reconnected and carried on a relationship.

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When she learned of his death, the woman told Hobbs all about his younger days and their rekindled love, how he used to call her his “old honey.” She couldn’t make it to the burial but wrote a poem that she asked Hobbs to read at the ceremony. When the time came, Hobbs did just that, and at the woman’s request slipped the poem into the man’s casket before he was buried.

“That meant a lot to me, that I was able to honor him and his relationship even though I didn’t know anything about him,” Hobbs said. “Without that contact and without this burial program and people willing to do it, that would not have happened.

“The premise of this program,” she said, “is that we’re going to make sure that everyone that comes through here is going to be treated with respect.”

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‘It’s come a long way’

The burials come quickly — sometimes at the rate of six to eight per week, making it difficult for the team to keep up.

Still, every morning at about 8 a.m., Hobbs and fellow caseworker Karina Damian start their day off by reading together from a daily devotion book.

“It’s something that inspires me to do better and be better,” Hobbs said.

Then, they go off into a frenzy of attending burial ceremonies at Travis County’s indigent cemetery in Manor — which will mark its fourth year of operation this month — making phone calls and sending emails to contact families of the deceased, then scheduling appointments with those they reach.

For a long time, the county didn’t have caseworkers specifically assigned to the program. Instead, caseworkers from the county’s social services covered the assignment on a rotating basis.

When Tondalier Owens took over the program in 2010, she said she quickly realized the program needed people specifically assigned to indigent burials. Since then, the program has grown to three staffers who focus solely on that issue.

“Now it’s become a standalone program,” Owens said. “It’s come a long way.”

The county contracts with several funeral homes that handle the viewing, memorial service and obituary writing for the deceased at costs ranging from $425 for children to $1,025 for a large adult — cheaper than what a regular burial would cost. This year, the program began offering cremations for $600.

Applicants must meet financial need requirements, which include being at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level for the 30-day period prior to death. In 2015, the county paid $141,592 to bury 162 indigent people.

For those decedents whose family cannot be found, the county processes the application for the dead person and foots the bill automatically if he or she qualifies.

“Now it brings the element ... that we do have sympathy for the journey you’re on.”

Tondalier Owens, head of Travis County Indigent Burial Program

“They’re not treated any differently than if a family was to come in and fill out an application,” said Carolyn Roberson, a former caseworker with the program who was promoted to an administrator job within the county’s social services programs in February.

Over the years, adding caseworkers specifically dedicated to the program has helped it connect more closely with those it serves, Owens said.

“Now it brings the element that makes people feel good,” she said, “that we’re not just putting your loved one in a hole or going through a process, but that we do have sympathy for the journey you’re on.”

With the two new caseworkers granted to the program last year, the team also gained a much-needed boost in its interactions with Spanish-speaking families: Damian serves as a translator for Spanish speakers.

As the child of parents who only spoke Spanish, Damian said, she understands the struggle that people who do not speak English may have while dealing with county services and trying to find answers to everyday questions.

“Being here allows me to appreciate, especially, the Latino community that are indigent and don’t have the money to bury their loved ones,” she said. “Most of them always come to me and say, ‘Thank you, Karina, for making this happen. If it wasn’t for this program I don’t know what I would have done.’ ”

Adam Saldana drives a casket delivered by Cook-Walden Funeral Home to a plot for a Travis County Indigent Burial Program service held at Wells School Road Cemetery on Jan. 19. The casket had to be transferred from a traditional hearse to the pickup because of the rough dirt roads leading to the plot site.

‘Not for me to judge’

Cases for the indigent burial program are referred by the county medical examiner or by the funeral homes that contract with the county. Usually, the cases are people for whom the county could not find a legal next of kin, whose legal next of kin does not want to be responsible for the burial or whose family doesn’t have the resources to pay for a burial.

Caseworkers for the program call the family members to explain the services they offer. Even when a next of kin has chosen not to take responsibility for the deceased, the caseworkers call one more time, or email them if an address is available — just in case. But they rarely get people to change their mind.

Some relatives refuse to have anything to do with the burial of their family member. Sometimes it’s a result of estrangement and not seeing the person for years, but other times it’s more complicated.

Some of the people buried have committed crimes against their families.

Nonetheless, the caseworkers move forward with the burial, with or without the family’s involvement.

“It’s not for me to judge how they lived their life,” Owens said. “When they come to Travis County, it is my responsibility to make sure that they are given the dignity and respect in their final resting place. … I’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure that never leaves the table and is always first and foremost.”

Often, Owens said, her work reminds her of her own mortality and that of her loved ones.

“I just always think about ‘there go I by the grace of God.’ It could be my family member, it could be me, and I would want someone to treat me with some dignity and respect,” she said.