The cost of dying in the District of Columbia just went up $25 for many.
The D.C. government this week began charging a fee for its medical examiner's office to approve death certificates before cremations are done. A little-noticed rule authorizing the charge was published in the D.C. Register in April 1984, but was not enforced until Sunday.
Imposition of the fee has angered several District funeral directors who say the charge is unjustified and raises death costs to families.
"It's a rip-off," said Robert A. Chambers, vice president of the Chambers Funeral Parlors, which advertises its $395 cremations in television and newspaper advertisements. "We bring in the completed death certificate and all the medical examiner's office does is sign it and rubber-stamp an approval. I don't mind paying for a service, but this is just to raise money."
Roger Dix, chief technician at the medical examiner's office, said the procedure is "not really" worth $25.
"We got a letter from downtown and it said we have to charge the undertakers," he said. "A couple of them are a little upset. They'll just have to charge the families a little bit more."
Charles Seigel, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees the medical examiner's office, said that while most cases are routine, there are instances when a medical examiner needs to call a doctor for more information about a death certificate. The $25 fee covers this extra effort, he said.
The fee was imposed after the District learned that some states charged for cremation approvals, according to Seigel.
"In the past, there have been bodies approved for cremation where the death certificate has been vague and it's later decided to be a homicide," Seigel said. He said he had no details about specific cases where this occurred.
According to rules developed by the medical examiner's office, the fee can be waived for stillborn deaths and for those receiving welfare benefits from the District, but not from other jurisdictions. Seigel said the department also can waive the fee in any case if the family cannot afford it.
Maryland does not require approval by a medical examiner before cremation. The state of Virginia does and charges a $50 fee.
Francis Lee, vice president of the Lee Funeral Home, which operates the only crematorium within the District, said of the new fee, "We just pass it right on to the family. It's not our charge."
"If the city could show us an incident or justify the expense, I wouldn't protest," he said. "But it's not an investigation to just read the certificate and have a clerk stamp it. Time is not being consumed."
Seigel said the charge covers the medical examiner's expertise in evaluating the cause of death. "It's very important in cremations because once the body is gone, you can't look for evidence," he said.
Chambers complained that bodies under police investigation already are handled by the medical examiner's office "so it's double taxation to impose a fee for the same people to sign it twice," he said. Death certificates signed by private doctors are so rarely questioned that the fee is not justified, he argued. "It's a revenue raiser without a reason."
The fees are sent to the general treasury and are not earmarked specifically for the medical examiner's office, Seigel said.