County agency steward of indigents’ remains

Eastside Cemetery final resting place for those who have no one to look after them

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

ROCKINGHAM — What happens to those few individuals who have no one to care for them? Who have know one to provide for them in their final days — or after?

Enter Mitch Humphrey, Julie Cagle-Webb and Steve Mercer, who combined oversee the Adult Services program with the Richmond County Department of Social Services. Humphrey is supervisor, Cagle-Webb manages the adult monitoring and adult home program while Mercer is in charge of guardianship, special assistance and “miscellaneous.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Eastside Cemetery in Rockingham serves as a final resting place for those who die and don't have anyone to claim their body.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Eastside Cemetery in Rockingham serves as a final resting place for those who die and don’t have anyone to claim their body.

The last part of that job description takes the former Hamlet Police Department officer a little outside the box of the services typically provided by a county agency. Mercer, a one-time seminary student, has never left the people business. These days, part of his job is to help care for the remains of people who die in Richmond County and are not claimed by family members or friends.

The issue was a topic of discussion Tuesday during the county’s regular meeting of the Health and Human Services Advisory Board.

Mercer equates the needs to a linebacker on a football team.

“We do what needs to be done,” Mercer said.

This is a service that uses county dollars and is not state-mandated. After a body goes 10 days being unclaimed from the morgue, Mercer gets a phone call. He has the body cremated, a headstone created and has a minister meet up at Eastside Cemetery in Rockingham.

There, a small section has been informally set aside for those who haven’t been claimed by anyone.

“Before we do that, we thoroughly search for relatives,” Humphrey said of cremation.”

Mercer said this happens approximately 11 times a year.

Robbie Hall,  director of the county’s Department of Social Services, said the annual budget attempts to project on the funds needed to care for indigent remains. The state requires only that the body be processed; no headstone or service is needed.

That’s not good enough for Hall and his team.

“We go beyond what is required,” Hall said. “The companies that we work with … (are) cremating at a very reduced cost.”

Hall said an average funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000 — much more than what it costs the county to cremate a body.

“We even have difficulty getting someone to come in and get the remains,” Hall said. “A lot of people really fear we’re gonna hand them the bill.”

That’s not the case, Hall said. The whole process gets to Mercer.

“That’s what tears me up,” Mercer said. “You live your whole life and nobody cares.”

Hall said his team also contacts the Commission of Anatomy to see if they want a donation, but there are difficulties. By the time the 10 days pass, the body isn’t in ideal condition, officials said.

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