The Cost of Burying Forgotten Souls

The average cost of a funeral these days is between $7,000 and $10,000. Imagine then, what it costs each state to bury inmates who die in prison, those whose bodies are unclaimed by family members.

Just like the population in general, the average age of prisoners is getting older. Coupled with the past trend of imposing long prison sentences, more and more inmates die behind bars. 

In addition, inmates often arrive at institutions in poor physical condition following years without proper health care. Chronic maladies like asthma, hepatitis and HIV are common. Many have histories of alcohol and drug abuse. All those diseases can contribute to early death.

And, considering today’s fragmentation of the family structure it is easy to see how more and more families are unavailable or financially unable to tend to their relative’s final needs.

The costs of burying these souls or arranging for their cremation falls to us – the taxpayers. Likely, you never thought about this when contemplating why your state taxes keep going up every year.

Some prisons maintain their own cemeteries, but not many. The oldest one in the country is the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. Since the mid-1800’s it has been the repository for both those who were executed at the nearby Texas State Penitentiary as well as other deceased Texas inmates who remained unclaimed.

I have visited a death row inmate at the Huntsville facility and the neatly kept, peaceful looking cemetery appears in sharp contrast to the razor wired environment that lies just about a mile away. It was once written that the place is reminiscent of Arlington National Cemetery, although this plot of land isn’t for burying heroes but, rather, for villains.

As a point of reference, consider this: In Texas, about 450 inmates die every year and about 100 are buried at the cemetery. The average cost of each burial is about $2,000  Inmates transport the bodies, dig the graves, keep the grounds and perform other related duties.

Not every state spends $200,000 a year to bury its dead prisoners but the costs are mounting in every state of the union. Even when some states, like Louisiana,  use inmate labor to build the coffins.

In Missouri, where there are some 32,000 inmates, prison officials are currently seeking burial bids from funeral homes. The state spent $62,000 last year on 55 unclaimed inmates (that’s about $1,100 per burial) and is now on the hunt for the least expensive wooden boxes and grave liners it can find to help reduce costs.

There have to be some readers wondering why this is an issue to care about. After all, convicted murderers, rapists and habitual child abusers aren’t usually the recipients of citizen’s sympathy. But attitudes change with death. Biblical lessons of forgiveness and the afterlife can loom large and, after all, we want compassion to be shown upon our own deaths. Right?

In Oregon, a stark lesson from several years ago, when it was learned that the cremains of more than 3,400 inmates of the State Mental Hospital had been all but forgotten in bent and rusted copper urns. The dead spanned a time from 1913 to 1971. State Senator Peter Courtney happened to stumble upon the abandoned remains during a trip to the facility to show a group where the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had been filmed. Inside an old shed they discovered the corroded canisters. Ashes of long dead, unclaimed inmate remains. The group fell silent, Courtney later recalled.


“If it makes any sense,” he said, “the silence was the loudest I’d ever heard in my life.”

Today, thanks to funding efforts led by Senator Courtney, those remains are housed in a new memorial. After a long laborious effort to identify, categorize and transfer them to new urns the remains were then offered to new generations of the families that once failed to claim them. Don Whetsell was among the more than 120 heirs to step forward. He was able to give his grandfather a proper burial 60 years after he had died.

Yes, things can change after death. We can view the criminal, the criminally insane or those who suffered and died in locked away places in a different light. No one likes ever-increasing taxes. But paying to bury forgotten souls is okay with me.




  1. Diane Dimond on December 5, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    Noozhawk Reader MaxWebXperienZ writes:

    Cremate and use the ashes on the prison’s gardens, no?

  2. Diane Dimond on January 1, 2017 at 8:17 pm

    Reader Rudy Chavez writes:

    The article you wrote about paying for inmates burials hit home with me. As a former Assistant County Attorney I dealt with people who died without any will, assets or family to claim them. Finding the money to bury them with dignity was a task. Thank you for the thought provoking piece.

  3. Diane Dimond on January 1, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Reader Anita Clark writes:

    hello ms dimond. I recently read your column regarding the cost of burying ‘forgotten souls’. I was a little bit outraged in reading your article so I hope you read this. maybe you have no problem in having your taxes raised in order to give these prison criminals a ‘proper’ burial but I do. for one thing these people in prison are never forgotten souls. the people they have victimized or families affected by their victimization are with them always. I do not think these people even deserve a proper burial. prisons should use the most economical means available to dispose of their bodies. costs I think could be cut even more if all prisoners were cremated & their ashes held for 6 months then disposed of if not claimed by anyone. you evidently have never been a victim of crime to have written the article you did. as an example, in 1995 my sister married a man who had previously been married & had 2 adult children. it was supposed to be a happy time for them each being previously married. just after a few months I received a call from my mother. my new brother-in-law’s 30 yr old daughter was in the hospital. she was trying to end a relationship with her crazy obsessive boyfriend when he threw gasoline on her & lit her with a match. she was burned over most of her body & she died after a week of suffering. he got life in prison. she was a beautiful woman with blond hair & blue eyes & the last photos of her are in my sister’s wedding album. i’m sorry but I doubt my brother-in-law would want his taxes raised in order to give this guy a proper burial when he dies in prison some day if no one claims him. the death of his daughter is always there even tho he had to try to go forward with his life. your column would have been more well spent researching the millions of elderly who die every day in nursing homes & hospitals that are ‘forgotten souls’ & who knows what happens to their bodies or how they are disposed of with no family to claim them or children who want to claim them. 40 years ago my husband & I were newlyweds. we moved in next door to a middle aged couple. not long after that, the woman’s husband died & she was a widow for the next 20 years until she came down with dementia & was taken out of her home & placed in a nursing facility. she was a good woman & always very nice to my husband & I. she had no children & all she had was a nephew who lived out of state & didn’t care about her. I learned of her passing when reading my local newspaper. it was just a brief few sentences that she had passed. nothing about her or her life & even her name was not quite right in the paper but I knew it was her. I don’t know what happened to her body but I doubt her nephew claimed it. I believe these are the real forgotten souls that do deserve a proper burial. people who are in prisons are there for a reason & the Charles Mansons of the world in prison don’t deserve any special burial recognition or treatment. that is my opinion. I hardly write to you journalists but felt I needed to in this instance. anita clark. Bartlesville OK.

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