ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The only two certainties in life -- death and taxes -- are proving to be quite a windfall for county governments in Florida.
As record numbers of Floridians choose cremations over traditional burials, local governments are benefiting by collecting millions of dollars in "cremation review fees." Some funeral homes and crematories say these fees are unnecessary and merely a way to pad government budgets.
In 2006, barely 50 percent of Floridians chose cremation over burial, thus subjecting themselves to a mostly unnoticed fee that used to be $20 to $25 in the few counties that charged it. Today, with nearly two out of every three choosing cremation, the fees are producing more than $4 million in annual revenues for 48 county governments that are charging as much as $63 per cremation.
"It really amounts to a death tax," said state Rep. Ken Roberson, a Charlotte County Republican and a funeral home director since the 1970s.
In 2014, Florida had nearly 188,000 deaths, with about 119,000 resulting in cremations.
The counties that charge the fee apply it any time a family requests cremation for a person who died a natural death. That money is intended to pay for medical examiners who review death records before a cremation occurs. Medical examiners say it is a legitimate expense and requires more than state legislators may realize. They say they have caught errors that are otherwise uncorrectable, given the finality of a cremation.
But Roberson doesn't buy it. He said medical examiners are mostly filing electronic forms verifying a natural death at little cost, and that shouldn't cost up to $63 per case. He said counties are overbilling families for a fee that has lost its relevance in the electronic age.
And not only does the fee get tacked on when families are most vulnerable, it can easily go unnoticed when the average cremation with a funeral service costs $6,100 (compared to $7,205 for a traditional burial), according to the National Funeral Directors Association's 2015 annual report.
"Floridians pay taxes and fees all their life; they or their families should not have to pay a fee when they prefer to be cremated," Roberson said.
In retaliation, Roberson is spearheading a bill in the Florida Legislature that would ban counties from charging any fee for cremations. The proposal has already cleared its first committee ahead of the Florida Legislature's next regular session, which begins Jan. 12.
But even within his own industry, Roberson could be in for a fight. Some funeral home operators in Tampa Bay said the fee is not much of a burden as long as it remains reasonable. But more importantly, they fear cutting the fee will underfund medical examiners, delaying when cremated remains ultimately get back to a family.
Cremation revenues are rising fast in Florida, which has been quicker to move toward cremations over traditional burials than the country on average. The National Funeral Directors Association forecasts that 49 percent of deaths this year will result in cremations; in Florida, cremation is the choice of an overwhelming 64 percent.
"Florida is an anomaly when you compare it to the rest of the South," said Barbara Kemmis, executive director for the Cremation Association of North America.
The five states with the lowest percentages of cremations are all in the South, led by Mississippi where just 19 percent of deaths resulted in cremations, according to the Cremation Association of North America. But Florida is very different, Kemmis said, and has been so for more than a decade. In 2005, when just 33 percent of the nation was choosing cremation, a majority of Floridians - 51 percent - were being cremated.
John McQueen, president and owner of Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home, has seen the impact on his business over the length of his career. In 1987, McQueen said 75 percent of his customers in Pinellas and Hillsborough had traditional burials. Now he said, 78 percent of his business is cremation.
Cost is routinely cited as a top factor in pushing people toward cremations, said Jessica Koth of the National Funeral Directors Association. Cremations with funeral services average more than $1,000 less than a full body service and burial. And it can go dramatically lower. A subindustry of direct cremation companies has begun to emerge, offering cremations without any other services for less than $1,000.
Florida's transplanted retiree population only adds to the costs. Cargo rates for shipping a full body back to a home state are vastly more expensive and complicated than transporting cremated remains, Koth said.
Changes in religious tolerance have also played a big role in the dramatic shift in cremations nationwide. In 1983, the Catholic Church changed its decades-old canons to make clear cremations were no longer forbidden.
In tandem with the rising popularity of cremations, governments have been increasing fees for those who choose it. Just last year, Miami-Dade pushed its fee up to $63, the highest in Florida. As a result, Miami-Dade collected more than $500,000 in revenue for the 9,500 cremations performed in 2014, according to the state's Medical Examiners Commission.
Pinellas County, which created a $40 fee in 2008, is next in line when it comes to revenues from cremations, collecting about $376,000 this year and more than $1 million over the last three years, according to the Pinellas County budget.
Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Medical Examiners Office which covers Pinellas and Pasco, defends the fee, citing a high volume of cases. Between the two counties he covers, he had more than 13,000 deaths to review before a cremation.
"We are the cremation capital of Florida," Pellan said.
To Roberson, there is a question of fairness. Some counties are not charging anything, yet others feel they have to charge $63. If a person dies in Hillsborough, the cremation fee is $25, but in Pinellas it's $15 more for the same service, Roberson said. In Charlotte County, where Roberson works, there is no fee, but if he handles a death from neighboring Lee County, the fee jumps to $50 per cremation.
Miami-Dade chief medical examiner Bruce A. Hyma maintains the $63 fee is essential. He said it helps pay for reviewing death records that frequently have mistakes. He said many private doctors mislabel a cause of death or even fail to fill one out at all, and his office spends a lot of time correcting errors.
"We need to make sure the death record is correct," Hyma said, adding that he has one employee dedicated full-time to reviewing doctors' reports.
Hyma said the last thing anyone wants is to have a homicide erroneously listed as death by natural causes and not reviewable because the body was cremated.
"I don't think we are over charging," Hyma said. "And this is not a death tax. That is really a misrepresentation."
The Florida Association of Counties, which agrees with Hyma, is rallying opposition to Roberson's bill. Initially, Roberson sought to cap fees at $50, but he changed the bill earlier this month to wipe out the fees entirely - affecting 48 counties that count on the revenue. The association is labeling the move as legislative overreach, arguing that individual counties should have discretion in deciding how much to charge.
Jess McCarthy, a lobbyist for Miami-Dade, said if the Legislature bars counties from applying the fee, it won't eliminate the need or medical examiner costs for the job. Instead, it will force counties to find the money elsewhere in their budgets.
Not all cremation providers support Roberson's bill.
McQueen said the $40 charge is not a pressing issue for most families who are spending thousands to cremate a loved one. But he worries about the unintended consequences of cutting the fee. If the medical examiner's office is short staffed because they are not collecting the fee, he said, he's worried turnaround times on cremation reviews will get longer.
"Families simply want to know when they can get their loved one's remains," McQueen said. "What's going to happen when it takes longer to get those reviews done?"