County, funeral homes and cemeteries pay for charity burials
On the south side of Gateway Avenue just east of Columbia Road in Grand Forks, there is a small field of grass between the back side of a strip mall and Memorial Park Cemetery.
If it weren’t for a few small plastic crosses and other markers, anyone driving by on Gateway would have no idea they were looking at the Grand Forks County Cemetery, which has served as a sort of potter’s field in Grand Forks for more than a century.
When people die with no kin to claim them or no money to afford a burial, this is usually where they are laid to rest. Through funds from Grand Forks County Social Services, local funeral homes and cemeteries will bury those who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.
The road to a county burial often starts with Phil Amundson, the director of Amundson funeral home.
Amundson, who began working at the funeral home under his father and has worked there full time since 1982, said he will contact Grand Forks County social services when families don’t have enough money to afford a funeral or burial.
Through the county, a family will apply for burial assistance. If they are accepted, they can receive a maximum of $2,100 ($400 of which is designated for the burial), which is paid directly to the funeral home.
While this amount allows a family to bury their loved ones, it’s barely enough to cover labor costs. Amundson said a casket, preparation for burial and service usually cost upward of $5,000, and a burial normally costs $1,050 in Memorial Park cemeteries.
However, the number of burials through county programming is low enough that funeral homes can afford to do it for the community.
To access the cemetery, which has no formal sign or entrance, visitors can park in front of the strip mall and walk around the back of SlapShot Pizza & Fat Albert’s Subs.
From there, they will stumble across what seems to be a random assortment of grave markers, which lie in rows that stop and start sporadically.
For the most part, the year of death gets earlier toward the south of the yard, reaching back decade by decade until the oldest marked grave is reached: 1892 — a Cornelius Anderson, who according to his headstone came from Norway to the United States via Ellis Island and was a “victim of typhoid fever.”
Close to the corner of 13th Avenue North and North 23rd Street, a row of numbered small, square stones mark older, more obscure graves.
Based on the inconsistent spacing of the grave markers, it’s clear that many have been left unmarked.
Despite the cemetery’s hodgepodge appearance, its existence is a service to the community provided by a combination of county social services funding and the charity of local funeral homes and cemeteries.
Ed Christ, director of Grand Forks County Social Services, said they usually have a couple of burials per month, and have had 15 this year. According to Kent Johnson, director of Polk County social services, there were 31 county-funded or assisted burials in 2013 and 30 in 2012.
According to Robin Purcell, administrator of the Grand Forks Cemetery Association, the number of burials paid for by the county was much higher around the turn of the 20th century because there were a lot more cases of unidentifiable “John Does” showing up on trains, either already dead or sick and dying.
Because there was no way to trace who they were or where they came from, they were buried in the same cemetery, which Purcell said used to be referred to simply as Grand Forks’ potter’s field.
Despite the lack of profit from these burials for funeral homes and cemeteries, Amundson said they have never turned away a county burial because they feel it is a service to the area’s people.
“We do it only because we want to care for everyone in our community,” said Amundson. “We want to make sure that every family is cared for in a respectful way.”