BISMARCK — Mike Nathe sees funeral homes as an unsung hero for indigent burials.

"Somebody has to step up and help these unclaimed, indigent cases, so I think that speaks very loudly and proudly about the industry that I'm in," the Bismarck Funeral Home director and Republican state representative said.

Burial assistance for the poor is a responsibility of North Dakota's counties. Their obligation is determined from the deceased's eligibility based on their income, assets and certain family members' ability to pay. County commissions negotiate burial reimbursement rates with funeral directors, with a minimum of $1,500 set by state law.

But here is where counties differ — and where some social service directors hope for consistency in new multicounty, state-funded "human service zones." Reimbursement rates are also where funeral homes often take a loss, Nathe said. Counties' burial assistance, when approved, doesn't often meet all the costs.

"The funeral homes will step up and help out as much as they can, but funeral homes shouldn't have to take a loss," Nathe said. "I don't know any other business out there that is expected to take a loss."

Burleigh and Morton counties reimburse up to $2,100 and $3,050, respectively, for an indigent burial.

Burleigh last renegotiated its rate in 2007, according to Lori Clark, an eligibility supervisor for the county's social services. The county prefers cremation because it costs less, she said.

Morton County last met with funeral directors in January, said Dennis Meier, the county's social services director. Morton County's social service board voted then to move to $3,150 in 2020, according to board minutes.

Burial costs can be extensive for a basic interment. Nathe noted $800 to $1,000 for grave space, $800 to open and close the grave, $1,000 or more for the grave's vault and $600 to $800 for a basic casket.

Meier said he hopes for consistency in reimbursements as the "human service zones" are phased in and funded by the state by 2021. A state Department of Human Services spokeswoman said eligibility standards will be set by human service zones directors or the department.

"I think we're really going to lean toward consistency across the state," Meier said. "I think that's a big part of it, is having policy that's consistent on how we do business."

Dakota Central Social Services Director Steve Reiser also looks forward to "consistent and fair" burial assistance across zones, which have yet to form. His social service district comprises four counties, each with a different burial reimbursement, from $1,950 in Sheridan County to $4,500 in Mercer County.

But those counties see few indigent burials. So far in 2019, there have been two, Reiser said. Nathe said his funeral home handles 12 to 24 a year from multiple counties.

Clark and Meier couldn't pinpoint reasons for recent trends in Burleigh and Morton counties' burial assistance: Burleigh had a five-year high of 22 burials in 2018, the same year Morton had an all-time low of three.

Since 2016, Burleigh has trended upward, while Morton has gone down but has already surpassed its 2018 burials halfway through 2019.

Nathe said he expects indigent burials to increase in the Bismarck area, which he attributes to transient people, many of whom don't have family.

"A lot of times, these people will come to Bismarck, especially in the summertime, will be here, unfortunately pass away and then there's nobody," said the funeral director of 34 years.

Few people are eligible for burial assistance. Not all applications are approved.

"You have to be truly penniless before the county will pay," Nathe said. Friends of the deceased sometimes contribute toward burial costs, he added.

Clark said indigent burials have been done for a variety of people, from elderly adults to young children to estranged family members. Guardian & Protective Services, a nonprofit serving vulnerable adults or friends often apply for burial assistance, she added.

But the program is needs-based. And counties do look into a family's ability to afford a burial, but Reiser said counties vary on which survivors they review, such as spouses and siblings.

"If you have enough assets to bury you, we're not going to help out," Clark said.

Headstones and burial plots are free of charge to all veterans at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan. Funeral homes caring for an indigent veteran's burial can seek reimbursement for a vault or urn through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Last year, Nathe's funeral home buried eight plastic, labeled urns in an unmarked, donated plot at St. Mary's Cemetery after holding them for four to six years. He said there's a paper trail for any family who might come for them.

Clark and Meier said their counties have handled burial assistance applications as recently as this month.

"We're kind of there as a last resort," Clark said.