Waco funeral home ‘extremely blessed’ to lay local unclaimed deceased to rest

Restland Cemetery, which is nicknamed “the pauper’s cemetery,” is home to the unclaimed deceased. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

By Josh Siatkowski | Staff Writer

Think about the last funeral you went to. You might see a church hall, adorned with bright flowers. Maybe you look at the chiseled steel casket and listen as an organ blows out “Amazing Grace.” Perhaps you’re sitting among family and friends, who let out a tearful laugh at a funny story in the eulogy.

For many, these images are only logical proceedings from words like “death” and “funeral.” This elegant sendoff has become simply the thing to do when a loved one’s time arrives.

Most, however, are aware that giving a friend or family the ceremony they deserve requires the forking over of a sizable check — one that could easily cover a car or a year of rent. But it takes more than cash to make it happen, and among these other things is a form of capital people often take for granted: relationships. And for those who lack both, the days after death are not a story often told.

According to data from Heather Travers, the director of McLennan County Health Services, about 3,000 people die every year in McLennan County. The majority of these deaths are reported by a loved one ready to prepare a funeral. However, families without the funds apply for what’s known as a pauper cremation.

If accepted, a pauper cremation transfers the cost of the funeral and cremation to McLennan County, which is around $1,000 of taxpayer money. About 150 pauper cremation applications come into the office each year, according to Travers.

For the roughly 100 of these applications that are accepted, based on analysis of the deceased’s and family’s financial means, McLennan County contracts Lake Shore Funeral Home to provide families with a full-service burial process.

But an even smaller minority exists among these paupers. Between 10 and 20 are what’s known as “unclaimed bodies.” Not only do they lack the funds to afford a proper burial, but they also die without a next of kin. Travers said via email that most of these unclaimed bodies are homeless elders, who died not among family but alone on the streets.

Among these dozen or so bodies, Travers said a next of kin is often located shortly after the death.

“It is a rare occurrence for us to be unsuccessful in finding the legal next of kin, and families are seldom unwilling or unable to take control of disposition,” Travers said.

However, in a few cases, the deceased remains unclaimed even after what Travers called “an extensive search process.” Since October 2023, McLennan County has accepted 72 pauper burials, five of which were unclaimed at the time of death. Only three remained unclaimed after the search — just 4% of total pauper burials.

So what happens to these few?

Despite the fact that McLennan County loses taxpayer money on these unattended burials, funeral director Andrew Ham said Lake Shore provides the deceased with dignity.

“[Unclaimed paupers] live a secluded existence,” Ham said. “And as sad as it sounds, they end up passing, and nobody is there to pick up the mantle. But that’s where we come in — to be that final service to them in honor of their life, as tragic as their life may be.”

Once McLennan County concludes that a next of kin cannot be found, Lake Shore begins the burial process.

Ham said one of the main differences between unclaimed paupers and paupers with family is the mode of burial. Although most paupers are cremated in McLennan County’s pauper funeral program, largely because it is cheaper, Texas state law holds that paupers without any identifiable next of kin are not to be cremated.

When the deceased’s unclaimed status is confirmed, Lake Shore moves the body out of refrigeration and moves toward burial in a casket. Unlike the shining, carved and decorated ones seen at church services and casket shops, these ones are less than premium.

“If there is indeed no next of kin, we will go ahead and get a burial,” Ham said. “The county will pay for us to get a minimum casket. It’s a metal casket.”

Once the casket is ready, a funeral director like Ham will drive the body in a coach to the county-owned Restland Cemetery, which is nicknamed “the pauper’s cemetery.” This field, just two miles away from Baylor’s campus, is home to a grid of small, flat headstones, and it’s the resting site of all unclaimed burials in McLennan County. Some headstones merely read “unknown,” while one marks the grave of a Branch Davidian killed in 1993.

The drive to Restland is a sobering one, Ham said.

“There’s definitely a measure of sadness,” Ham said. “I’ve just ridden with this guy five and a half miles, and even though I know that he’s with our Lord, and I’m just burying his shell, it can weigh on you.”

Although funeral directors are practically colleagues with death, even Ham begins to question his own mortality on these rides — which he’s been on numerous times.

“You think about your own mortality,” Ham said. “Could this ultimately be me, in this primer gray casket, going into the ground? Is someone going to be driving me those five or six miles? Are a couple of guys just going to cover me in the dirt?”

Finally, after the coach arrives at Restland Cemetery, comes the semblance of a funeral. Sometimes Ham is joined by a few county employees who want to pay their respects. Other times, it’s just a funeral director and a few grave diggers there for a quick and quiet burial.

As somber as the situation is, Ham said it’s an honorable one to be part of. A human would be completely forgotten and unvalued were it not for the efforts of McLennan County and Lake Shore, and Ham and his colleagues think about it.

“We feel extremely blessed that we have been provided with the county contract so that we can step in and get [these people] to their final resting place,” Ham said.

Josh Siatkowski is a freshman Business Fellow from Oklahoma City, with majors in Economics and Professional Writing and Rhetoric. Josh is in his first semester at the Lariat, and he's excited to find interesting and important stories to share with his fellow students. He is still undecided about his post-college plans.