The St. Helena Parish coroner held a pauper’s funeral Tuesday in Greensburg for a woman whose relatives did not claim her remains, the first such occurrence in more than three decades, the coroner said.
The woman was not from St. Helena Parish but was staying there when she died of natural causes, Coroner Jimmie Varnado said. It took about six weeks for the Coroner’s Office to make contact with the woman’s out-of-state relatives, who chose not to claim her body for burial, Varnado said.
Varnado declined to give the woman’s name or age.
Under state law, a coroner has the authority to bury or cremate a person’s unclaimed remains, Varnado said.
If the person leaves behind any property or assets, the costs of burial or cremation are taken out of the estate, said Cliff Speed, legal adviser to the St. Helena Parish Police Jury.
Relatives also can be charged for the costs if they receive any part of the estate in inheritance, Speed said.
In this case, there was no property or money to defray the costs, Varnado said.
The burial was made in a pauper’s grave at Greensburg Cemetery. Town workers dug the grave, and a group of volunteers made a wooden box in which to place the woman’s body, Varnado said.
Volunteers also were taking collections in order to donate a headstone or marker for the woman’s gravesite, the coroner said.
“So anyone interested will know where she is, and if the family decides to have her removed one day, they will be able to do that,” he said.
Tuesday’s funeral was the first time in decades the parish held a service for an unclaimed body, Varnado said.
More than 30 years ago, the Coroner’s Office buried an unidentified male homicide victim whose body had been dumped in the parish, he said.
“He was given a pauper’s funeral. Then about 20 years later, when DNA testing became prevalent, the person was identified and his family was located and notified,” Varnado said. “They came and took his body home for burial.”
Varnado received approval March 12 from the St. Helena Parish Police Jury for Tuesday’s burial, though he said he had the authority even without a jury resolution. The question was what pauper plots might be available, he said.
The jury approved burial in either the Dickfield Allen Cemetery, off La. 1043 northwest of Greensburg, or the Greensburg Cemetery. Parish-owned acreage in Carruth Cemetery is currently inaccessible to parish equipment due to the lack of a proper access road, jurors said.
Neither Varnado nor the jury favored cremation.
“For me personally, I wouldn’t cremate any of my family members, for personal reasons, so I wouldn’t feel right cremating someone I’ve never met either,” Juror Theodore McCray said at the meeting.
If the remains were cremated, Varnado said, the urn of ashes would have become the property of the Coroner’s Office, which would remain responsible for storage and safekeeping unless and until someone claimed the remains.
Varnado said he will also seek a court order authorizing the burial “for my protection, just in case any liability stuff comes up. You never know what people will do in this day and age.”
The court order is not necessary, Speed said, but is being sought out of an abundance of caution.