Too cash-strapped for a funeral, widow finds decency and decorum through a student-run service

Linda Tillman thought a memorial service for her late husband George was financially impossible. Over the years, his medical debt had ballooned to $90,000, leaving the expense of a conventional funeral out of her reach.

Maybe, she thought after he died, the family could have a gathering at their house sometime “down the road.” But hoping to find a way to give George the burial she wanted, she searched online for low-cost alternatives.

What she found was unexpected, fitting — and free.

Through a new Sacramento County program approved last year, the American River College Funeral Service Education program pays for funeral services in full for a select few without the means. The program allows students to receive hands-on training and experience preparing decedents for memorials, viewings and cremations, and provides family’s like Tillman’s an alternative to an indigent cremation.

Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin said its the only program of its kind in California, and American River professor Valarie Rose said students have “just been out of their mind loving this.”

“They can stand there and listen to me talk, but it doesn’t really translate to real-life well if you don’t put it into practice,” she said. “Some first year students, they’re already embalming and that’s great.”

Earlier this month, Tillman and about 30 of her closest friends and family gathered at the Sierra View Chapel and Crematory for a funeral service students planned for George, a Vietnam War veteran. The observance included a ceremonial folding of the American flag and a performance of Taps by the California Honor Guards.

It was a somber affair with personal touches: Tillman was able to bring George’s Shih Tzu, Cesar. One of their sons, who is currently incarcerated, couldn’t attend the funeral, but wrote a letter to his father.

“I asked to put it in his pocket,” Tillman said, which students happily accommodated. Being able to include the note meant the world to her.

Through Sacramento County’s existing indigent cremation program, families can apply to have cremation fees covered in cases where the deceased and their families have little or no income. But the cost of any funeral service or wake previously would have to be shouldered by the family, Gin said.

Funeral services can cost anywhere from $3,500 to $8,000, according to Craig Strunk, funeral director at Sierra View, which contracts with the college to help conduct funeral preparations and services. The price tag means that an important step of the grieving process for loved ones is unlikely for some low-income families, he said.

Some of the deceased who have come through the program may have been homeless, or had medical or addiction issues, Struck said.

Others may have just been distant from their family, and without the student-run service “nothing would’ve occurred,” he said. “Everybody deserves to have a dignified burial, or in this case a cremation, and we’re able to do that.”

So far, the program has provided five funeral services — a slower start than initially hoped, Rose said. The program is heavily dependent on students being in session for services to be offered, but she’s hoping after winter break the school will be able to provide up to 25 services this school year.

In 2017, 410 decedents went through Sacramento County’s indigent cremation process — many of whom likely have families who qualify for the new funeral services program, Gin said.

“If all goes well” and demand increases, Rose said, the department will try to increase their budget to accommodate more.

“The more the word gets out the better,” said Strunk.

Gin recalled one woman who recently came to the coroner’s office after her son died.

“She was so upset because she wasn’t going to be able to have a service for her son,” Gin said. “She thought, ‘I’m just going to fill out some paperwork and that’s it.’”

When she learned she qualified for the new program, “she cried and cried,” Gin said. “She was so happy.”

For Linda Tillman, the new program has been “a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”

“I probably would’ve had to borrow money from family just for the cremation,” Tillman said.

Tillman met George at a club in Stockton 30 years ago, and within month they were engaged, she said. He was a quiet, spiritual, gentle man, she said, with a doctoral degree in theology that kept him grounded. With kids from a previous marriage and two more with George, they grew a “real big family,” she said.

George had a long medical history including congestive heart failure, a blood cancer and cirrhosis that often sent him to the hospital, she said. Still, Tillman said the death of her husband was unexpected.

Tillman worries now about how she will pay the medical bills they have accumulated, but takes comfort that she did George justice with his burial, she said.

“I think when somebody dies, someone you love, and you can’t really afford to do what you think that person deserves in death, you have such a feeling of guilt because you always want the best for your loved one,” she said. “It is such a good feeling that he’s going to get a decent service. ... It really is sweet.”

Those interested in participating in the program should contact the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office directly at (916) 874-9320 to apply.

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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