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Monday, July 15, 2024


Burying the Indigent: ‘There Is a Lot of Good Work Done on Behalf of These People’

Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti
File Photo
Cape May County Clerk Rita Rothberg on county burial of the indigent: “There is a lot of good work done on behalf of these people.”

By Christopher South

COURT HOUSE – Americans just celebrated Memorial Day, a remembrance of those who died in military service. The county, like many others in the country and state, has a veterans cemetery set aside for its veterans and their spouses.

However, for those who die who had no means and/or no family members, the disposition of their remains is left to the county government.

Cape May County Clerk Rita Rothberg spoke to the county chamber of commerce this spring and, in outlining the duties of her office, mentioned that it handles burial of the indigent.

“It’s a function of the county adjuster,” Rothberg said.

She said the county has an administrative program for burial, and that her office handles fewer than 10 per year. “These are individuals who have no next of kin and no assets,” she said.

The adjuster is a role Rothberg fills as county clerk. Besides burial of the indigent, she said, the office determines the legal settlement and support for county residents admitted to New Jersey psychiatric hospitals.

According to the adjuster’s section on the county website, the office also:

  • Is responsible to provide legal representation for patients at civil commitment hearings and schedules court hearings on these matters. It collects court-ordered or voluntary payments from these individuals if they have the ability to pay.
  • Performs mental health searches for firearms applicants for law enforcement agencies and files and maintains institutional liens on behalf of the county.
  • Prepares and disburses a portion of the county budget for maintenance for the mentally ill, for medical, dental and pharmaceutical care for Cape May County Correctional Center inmates and for aid to local volunteer rescue squads.

Concerning burial of the indigent, Rothberg said the clerk’s office does the investigation and the adjuster’s office handles the administration. Her office has resolutions dating back as far as 1977 authorizing burials of indigent persons.

She said she recently asked the Board of County Commissioners to raise the amount the county would spend on a burial to at least the Medicaid rate. She said many of the individuals she deals with don’t have Medicaid.

Seaside Cemetery on Route 9 in Upper Township is the final resting place for many of the indigent who die without the means for a paid burial in Cape May County.

If the deceased is 67 or younger and doesn’t have other benefits the county provides $3,077 for what she called a “very simple but dignified burial.”

“If they are a veteran they can be buried in the Cape May County Veterans Cemetery,” she said, adding there is an additional expense because the VA requires a different type of coffin.

Rothberg clarified that, by resolution, the county has authorized $3,400 for the burial of a veteran, which covers the cost of the “approved outer counter” for the coffin. The outer counter is a burial vault or grave liner. She said the county could provide cremation if it gets approval to do so.

Normally, indigent persons are buried at Seaside Cemetery in Upper Township, which she said has been “very generous” in this regard.

Upper Township Mayor Jay Newman, former owner of Seaside Cemetery, said he accepted many indigent burials.

“We had a whole section. Years ago we decided we would assist in indigent burials and have been able to do that for both Atlantic and Cape May counties,” he said.

Wesley Tomlin, the current president of Seaside Cemetery, said they do a large number of indigent burials and charge about a quarter of the market rate. Speaking on May 31, Tomlin said they had done five indigent burials that week alone. He said only the cemetery knows who is buried as an indigent.

Newman said, “It’s a normal burial. If you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell if it were a multimillionaire or an indigent person.”

Rothberg said her office performed an inventory a few years ago of cases from 2016 to 2021. In 2021, of eight burials provided for the indigent, five were paid for by the county, two by Medicaid and one by other sources, which could be the next of kin or assets left behind.

She said individuals whose burials they handle might live alone, perhaps renting an apartment, or, as in a recent case, living in a nursing home with care paid for by Medicaid.

“The person was getting a small benefit, and at the time the court was appointing a guardian for him and he passed away. We got the call in regard to this case,” she said.

Rothberg said it’s rare that her office even gets to know the names of the deceased they deal with, saying these are people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. They are sometimes younger people who became the victim of a drug overdose, or perhaps were homeless. Whatever the circumstances, she said it’s an honor for her and her staff to provide care for people who had nothing and no one.

“It’s done very quietly, but there is a lot of good work done on behalf of these people,” she said.

Contact the reporter, Christopher South, at or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.


Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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