FORT MYERS, Fla. - Your taxes pay for roads, schools and police. But did you also know that you're paying to bury the dead? Tens of thousands of dollars every year are being spent on making sure everyone gets a proper goodbye and in Lee County that includes a burial at sea.
People who die without a cent to their name, with no family, or people who are unidentified must still be put to rest. It's a state law that every county pay to bury or cremate the bodies of the poor or unclaimed. We investigated how Southwest Florida took care of its citizens once they pass away and what it costs you, the tax payer.
Three miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by blue sky and emerald green water, eight people received their final farewell. No friends or family, not a soul who knew these people when they were alive, were there to pay their respects. Instead, crew members of the Rainbow Memorials at Sea were the ones offering a proper goodbye to people they never knew.
"Everyone is treated the same. No matter what, where they come from, everyone is treated the same, as human beings," Rainbow Memorials at Sea Co-owner, Nancy McCarn told WINK.
The crew said prayers, read bible verses, and played music as they placed the cremated bodies in the water with a single rose.
"I do say my own private goodbye to the person even though I may not have met them; and it's just, I'm the last person that says goodbye," McCarn said.
"At one time when people used to be buried instead of cremated, it went over $100,000-- not by much-- but we've managed to keep it under $100,000 for the last several years; many years, actually," Bill Lawyer with the Lee County Human Services Department, explained about the cost.
Lawyer oversees how Lee County disposes of its deceased citizens.
"Obviously, you can't have a bunch of bodies laying around. Someone would have to take care of it," Lawyer said.
But making sure the dead have a final resting place comes with a cost; and with the downturn in the economy, the county is cremating more people than ever.
"It's increased about maybe one cremation per month? And then when you look at the last five years you see of course we're doing about five more per month than we were doing five years ago; but it's been a gradual increase," Lawyer calculated.
In fact, this past fiscal year Lee County cremated or buried 216 people spending a total of $67,065.
Despite the slight uptick in number of cases however, the cost is less than in years past.
Lee County bid out cremations and is now paying just $350 for an adult cremation. That's less than the $475 Charlotte County pays and the $695 Collier pays. Lee County also pays an additional $50 to scatter the ashes at sea.
"There are church gardens and other places but it's non denominational. It seemed like the right thing to do and the people that do this provide a certificate with the spot they were scattered, longitude and latitude, and that goes into the deceased file at the funeral home in case any of their relatives should show up some time and want to know what happened to their loved one," Lawyer explained.
But because taxpayers ultimately pay for the service, Bill Lawyer plays detective to make sure there really is no one else who can pay.
"We do a search for relatives and sometimes we find people and other times we don't," he said.
He also searches to see if the deceased left behind any money or any property to reimburse the county. Though in this economy, even that is proving difficult.
"For the most part, over the last four or five years, any property owners, the research I've done, the house is not worth what they owe on it so there's not going to be anything from any estate anyway," Lawyer told us.
We did look at the trends in Collier and Charlotte counties as well. We found that both counties saw a slight increase in the number of unclaimed deceased people.
And on a side note, the charter boat we were on follows all EPA guidelines when it comes to scattering cremations at sea.