Finding a New Home for Indigent Dead
Thursday, August 9, 2007
The final resting place for Fairfax County's indigent dead is nicer than it sounds: a half-acre in back of a vehicle maintenance depot on Jermantown Road, where garage mechanics tune up school buses and a sign asks police to test their patrol car sirens somewhere else.
Inside the white picket fence, it is shaded, green and, a couple of gopher holes notwithstanding, attentively maintained. One section, its grave markers facing east, is set aside for Islamic burials.
Many of the 230 people buried here died poor but not forgotten. A recent food offering, including a bottle of orange Gatorade, sat at the grave of Van Thi Kim Hong, whose marker carries an ending (5/2/91) but no beginning.
A bright array of artificial flowers lay near Heidi G. Thomas, along with a homemade sign: "Best mom sister grandmomie. We will never forget you. Love you lots."
But the Fairfax County Cemetery, which opened in 1946, has been full and closed to new burials since 1993. Since then, the county has contracted with private cemeteries, currently National Memorial Park in Falls Church, to receive the 40 to 50 people it buries or cremates each year at public expense.
The county would rather have its own cemetery, but with vacant land increasingly at a premium, a new site has been difficult to come by.
"The county has been looking for a property for a long time," said Barbara Antley, assistant director of adult and aging services for the Fairfax Department of Family Services, which spends about $160,000 a year on indigent burials.
The county can assume responsibility for interment or cremation in several ways: A person dies in the hospital and no one claims the body. A family contacts a social worker to say that it can't pay for burial. There are the homeless, the estranged, a nursing home resident who has outlived assets and kin.
It costs about $3,200 for the county to prepare and bury an indigent person. In addition to the agreement with National Memorial Park, the county has a contract with Peyton Funeral Home in Alexandria for embalming services and, if the family wants, a viewing.
"It's something we do to try to help the families who have no other resources. We try to help people heal," said Antley, a soft-spoken woman who began her career as an adult protective services social worker 22 years ago.
Fairfax officials have looked at several potential sites, including a cemetery on the grounds of the old correctional facility in Lorton and two other pieces of land in the surrounding Laurel Hill area. But lack of size or access made them unsuitable, county officials said.
With the help of an enterprising county planner, another spot -- also in the Laurel Hill area -- is under study. Once again, it sounds anything but eternally tranquil: three acres between Fort Belvoir and the giant Norman M. Cole Jr. Pollution Control Plant in Lorton, which processes about 67 million gallons of sewage a day.