Under the wide Montana sky, earth turned just a few weeks earlier was still filled with rocks. The flat potter’s field lay brown and barren, the Big Belts streaming with clouds to the east. The cut flowers that had been placed there were wilting, the plastic flowers still bright under the small metal placards of copper and silver.
In November, two women had been buried there at the Lewis and Clark County Cemetery, 200 feet back from the roadside. Their burials were subsidized by the county, completed by a funeral home, and attended mainly by county officials. That's because the county coroner had deemed them indigent, which means they had no families, no way to pay for the expense of burials -- and the last people to see them had most likely never seen them before.
These burials are common in Lewis and Clark County. Earlier this fall, the county commission agreed to nearly double the amount of money paid to funeral homes to bury those without family or the personal means to pay for a burial. The payments will jump from $1,100 per burial to $2,300. The $1,100 was built on a handshake deal between former Coroner Mickey Nelson and funeral homes around the Helena area.
The county pays for just about half of the $4,500 cost per burial. Funeral homes take on the rest when the person has no personal property, like a car or jewelry that can be sold and put toward burial costs.
The county also decided to stick with burial instead of cremation for those unable to pay for their own funeral costs.
“There are fewer issues in burying someone than with cremation,” said Nancy Everson, Lewis and Clark County finance director.
Twenty people were buried on the county's dime in fiscal year 2016-17, and five burials have taken place so far in 2017-18. Everson and Marni Bentley, budget coordinator for the county, said the high numbers are a result of Helena being home to God’s Love, a homeless shelter that serves the very poor who might be estranged from their families.
County commissioner Susan Good Geise said the county is working to install a permanent memorial to all of the indigent individuals buried at the cemetery.
Geise remembered one man buried by the county who had told someone at PureView Health Center that he used to be an old railroader. When he was buried, the PureView employee brought two things with him: an old ticket book with the carbons still in it and a railroad lamp.
“The lamp was the real thing,” Geise remembered. “The ticket book was so he could write himself a ticket to anywhere.”
They were placed on top of the casket and buried with him.
Mike Stevenson, the funeral director for Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home in Helena, said the burial process is the same for indigent people and those with family members.
“We have less information to deal with,” Stevenson said of burials for the indigent. “We do whatever we can to find out their information, but that’s the coroner’s responsibility.”
“It’s tough to talk about people you don’t know,” Stevenson said about the simple ceremony performed at the burial. “It’s still a person who lived a life.”
Bryan Backeberg, the Lewis and Clark County coroner, is responsible for deciding if someone qualifies to be buried by the county.
“When a death occurs, the office is notified, I come to the scene whether it’s a hospice or a house and inquire into the death,” Backeberg said.
After the cause of death is determined, the next step is to figure out who might know the person. Backeberg looks for documentation -- such as mail, phone bills, subscriptions and social media -- and he reaches out to anyone who might know that person. If that doesn't work, Backeberg makes larger and larger circles around the person’s life while the body sits at the funeral home.
If Backeberg can’t find anyone within a certain amount of time, the funeral home will embalm the person as he continues with the search. Backeberg decides when to call it off but said he always tries any possible avenues. He tries to keep it to two weeks, because space for a body is very limited in Lewis and Clark County.
Backeberg said that if there are any liquefiable assets, the county attorney takes over to sell them, and that money goes toward burial costs.
“They are citizens we work for,” Backeberg said. “I hate to sit here thinking there’s family members out there who don’t know their uncle or aunt has died.”
Sometimes people don’t want to be found. But back at the cemetery lying fallow under the sky, their names are written in metal, six inches above the ground and staring at the sky, waiting to be covered by winter’s snow.