Pauline Corbett, a 57-year-old former domestic worker, died quietly six days ago of a heart attack at her home in Northeast Washington.
But as of late yesterday, her body was still in cold storage at the D.C. Morgue -- the mute victim of government inaction and a legislative quirk in the city's home rule charter that prevented her prompt burial. The bodies of at least eight other welfare recipients entitled, like Pauline Corbett, to city-paid indigent funerals have accumulated at the morgue and city hospitals since late December, awaiting burial.
Pauline Corbett's daughter, Joan Wright, 40, a General Services Administration custodial worker, said yesterday: "I feel kind of lost; I can't do anything."
She said that out-of-town relatives want to come to Washington, "but we can't do anything till we get the funeral together."
Death, thus, as life, has not come easlily to Pauline Corbett. A stout, jolly woman, she moved to Washington 30 years ago from the south, following the same migratory track of thousands of other rural blacks from the pine flats of North Carolina.
Here, she worked as a domestic for many years until she developed debilitating pains in her legs, according to her daughter. She quit work and went on welfare, remaining in her modest home at 1106 Montello Ave. NE.
At 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 30, she died. Her body was taken first to D.C. General Hospital and then to the morgue nearby where it has remained ever since.
Why the delay in burial?
The old city contract with W. W. Chambers Funeral Home to bury the poor expired Dec. 31, and new legislation providing direct money grants to indigent families for funeral expenses is hung up on Capitol Hill undergoing congressional review and is not expected to become law until late February.
As an interim emergency step, city welfare bureaucrats just yesterday completed an agreement with another mortuary, Dudley Funeral Home, to handle indigent cases on a temporary basis, even though City Councilwoman Nadine Winter, sponsor of the funeral bill now on the Hill, said she forewarned welfare officials of the impending problem as far back as early December.
She described the Department of Human Resources, which administers the indigent burial program, as "very negligent."
"I feel so sorry for the families," she said. "It creates a real hardship for them.
Pauline Corbett's daughter, Wright, said human resources department officials advised her late yesterday of the interim arrangement with Dudley Funeral Home, but because of the intervening weekend and additional paperwork that must be processed by the human resources department, she does not expect the funeral to take place until next week.
Though Pauline Corbett died Sunday, the family did not contact the human resources department until Tuesday to start processing the indigent funeral arrangements.
"I'm a bundle of nerves," said Wright. She said she has taken several days off without pay from her GSA job.
The case of Pauline Corbett and the other welfare deaths stems from a long-brewing political and racial tug-of-war in the city hall over how the indigent dead should be put to rest.
For years, the city contracted with the lowest bidding funeral home to provide all indigent funerals and burials -- some 450 to 500 a year. W. W. Chambers, a white-owned firm that prides itself on cut-rate, no-frills funerals, held the contract for years.
It grossed more than $225,000 in 1978 from 480 welfare funerals at $585 each for adults and lesser amounts for children.
Most of the dead were black, and complaints arose that Chambers was insensitive to black families and pressured them to purchase extra services beyond those paid for by the city. Chambers denied this.
In November, the City Council enacted a "Choice of Undertaker" bill, giving eligible welfare families a flat $750 grant with which to buy funeral and burial services from a funeral home of their own choosing.
The measure was scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, the day after the Chambers contract with the city expired.
Mayor Marion S. Barry signed the measure and Nov. 19 transmitted it to Capitol Hill for congressional review as required of all Council legislation under the 1976 home rule charter.
The review period -- 30 "legislative" or working days of Congress -- has not yet been completed, however, because of the Thanksgiving, Christmas and other intervening congressional recesses, and the bill thus cannot go into effect.
As a remedy, the Council could have enacted emergency legislation providing the same indigent funeral services on a temporary basis without congressional review. But both Nadine Winter and Councilman David Clarke, cosponsors of the original legislation, said this was unnecessary because the city had existing authority to contract interim agreements with funeral homes until the congressional review period was completed.
Winter said she discussed this option with human resources officials in early December, but they apparently did not act then.
Grady Williams, payments and collections chief for indigent burials and other contracts at human resources, said yesterday, however, he was not aware until recently that the congressional review period was going to run past Jan. 1. "I would think that . . . there was no conscious realization of that in this office," he said.
Welfare officials quickly hammered out an interim contract yesterday with the black-owned Dudley Funeral Home. Dudley demanded $775 for adult indigent funerals, $25 above the $750 grant amount in the Choice of Undertaker bill. "That $775 figure is still under negotiation," said human resource assistant director Virgil McDonald.
Several city hall political observers also grumbled privately that the contract was made with the Dudley firm whose president, Edward M. Dudley, was chief fund raiser for Nadine Winter's reelection campaign last year.
McDonald said, however, the contract went to Dudley because his is the only minority funeral home in the city certified to participate in the special minority set-aside contract program administered by the D.C. Minority Business Opportunities Commission.