Maine death certificates don’t track housing status, but other states are starting to
Jim Fernald is a fifth-generation funeral director. His great-great grandfather started the family profession near Mount Desert Island, and now, Fernald has been working for more than 30 years in Bangor.
Each case is different, Fernald said, but in the past few years, he’s seen an increase in the number of people who were homeless when they died. There used to be maybe five or six such cases a year — now it’s one or two a month.
Maine overall has seen an increase in homelessness in the past few years as the pandemic, inadequate resources and skyrocketing housing costs have left many people unhoused. Advocates have warned that sweeping encampments puts unhoused people at risk of dying. A lack of available, low-barrier shelter beds has also spurred this concern during the cold winter months. That fear came to fruition at the end of November when three people died in tents — two as a result of tent fires, one that is still under investigation.
When a person dies, a death certificate is created. It includes a plethora of biographical information such as education, occupation, Social Security Number, parents’ names. In Maine, the death certificate doesn’t explicitly indicate if a person was homeless at the time of death, but other states have adopted legislation to include that detail.
Funeral directors are “gatekeepers” of death certificates, Fernald said, since they are responsible for filling out non-medical portions of the document. And he said he’d welcome a mechanism to indicate on the death certificate that someone was homeless when they died.
“I know for sure for several of the death certificates of homeless we don’t have info like a Social Security Number or a date of birth, but if there was a checkbox or a way to put on the certificate for tracking whether the person was homeless or if it’s an abandoned body,” he said, he would embrace that.
Currently, death certificates in Maine are no different for a person who is homeless, said Lindsay Hammes, director of communications for Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which houses Vital Records. The only difference, she said, is that demographic details may be missing and the address is usually listed as “unknown.”
But that may not be true for all people who were unhoused. Fernald said he has listed the street name of an encampment for the address of a person who lived there.
Oregon passed legislation in 2021 requiring death certificates to indicate a person’s housing status. Having a uniform reporting system for homeless deaths was important for data collection around leading causes of death for homeless residents and addressing the homelessness crisis, according to legislative documents.
Finding next of kin can be hard for homeless
Details about a person are often missing on a death certificate because Fernald said finding next of kin can be “tough” for people who were homeless when they died.
In any situation, Fernald said he wants “to do the right thing” for a person in his care, but that can be hard to do without knowing specific details about a person. For example, if he finds out a person was a veteran, he tries to get them buried in one of Maine’s veterans’ cemeteries.
But that can be hard to do if they can’t find next of kin to confirm details such as veteran status or religion.
If police aren’t able to identify next of kin, Fernald said they can post a notice in the newspaper. But if no one comes forward after a certain number of days, funeral directors are given the authority to make decisions about the body.
Since the pandemic, Fernald said, that happens maybe 10 times a year, which is “the most we’ve ever seen.”
Those are the exact scenarios where Fernald imagines having a mechanism to report a person was homeless at time of death or next of kin couldn’t be identified would be helpful.
“I don’t really see why anybody would be against that,” he said.