The number of cremations in Luzerne County continues to rise, with 1,872 last year, new county statistics show.
In comparison, the county had 1,826 cremations in 2015 and 1,787 in 2014. There were 814 cremations in 2002.
Coroner’s office administrative assistant Mary Wallace, who added “cremation clerk” to her job duties in 2008 due to the influx, said the county is on track to break another record in 2017. Her office tracked 263 cremations from Jan. 1 to Feb. 10.
“This past January was the first time we went over 200 in one month,” said Wallace, who has recalled monthly counts that rarely exceeded 40 when she started processing cremation requests in the mid-1990s.
County Coroner William Lisman and others expect the number to grow with increased public and religious acceptance of the option.
Cremations have become a new revenue stream as the office faces rising costs. The county has increased the fee for cremation permits from $35 to $60, effective Feb. 1, Lisman said.
The law requires the coroner’s office to review death certificates before a cremation is authorized in case something suspicious or questionable must be examined.
The $25 hike will generate at least $46,800 more based on the number of cremations processed by the office last year.
More revenue is needed to fund a new chief deputy coroner position and an expected increase in autopsies linked to drug overdose deaths, Lisman said.
In support of the new position, Lisman said he believes he’s the only coroner in the state without a chief deputy to provide coverage support. He also told the county council he wants to share his decades of institutional knowledge with someone else so the county isn’t in a bind when he eventually leaves the position.
He recently selected Daniel Hughes as chief deputy at a salary of $48,000.
In addition to the cremation revenue increase, Lisman has reduced budget allotments for on-call pay and viewing of the deceased by $27,000 to more than cover the salary and benefits of the chief deputy position, he said.
Hughes, of Wilkes-Barre, has a bachelor’s degree in quantitative business analysis, owns a private funeral home business and has worked as a county deputy coroner since February 2000.
Before selecting Hughes, Lisman said a panel that included another representative from his judicial services and records division and also the county district attorney’s office interviewed three of four applicants who met minimum qualifications as determined by the county human resources department.
Hughes said he is prepared for his new role as second in command because he has assisted on major cases and learned from Lisman and his predecessors for 17 years.
The chief deputy coroner must be on call at all times, capable of handling death investigations and all other coroner duties and will supervise the office if the coroner is absent.
Additional cremation fee revenue also will offset a $50,000 budgetary increase for autopsies this year, Lisman said.
Autopsies are needed for law enforcement to more aggressively pursue charges against those accused of providing illegal drugs to overdose victims.
The county had a record 140 drug overdose deaths last year, compared to a previous high of 95 in 2015.
“Any prosecution is a total moot point unless we scientifically rule out any other cause of death,” Lisman said.
His office has instituted a new policy to hold the deceased in suspected overdose cases for 48 to 72 hours to allow police time to investigate the possibility of charges. Lisman discusses cases with police and the district attorney’s office to decide if the county will proceed with an autopsy, which costs around $2,000, he said.
“I’m not just going to randomly begin doing autopsies,” Lisman said. “At the same time, we don’t want someone who could be prosecuted for delivering a drug not to face that just because we don’t want to spend the money.”
Lisman said he had proposed increasing the cremation fee to $50 but had to tack on an additional $10 to meet the revenue target set by the county council in his 2017 budget. While the increase places the county’s cremation fee among the highest in the state, he said Montgomery County charges $75.
There was no backlash over the fee increase when he alerted funeral homes, he said.
The coroner’s office also has hired Dennis Dobinick, of Lehman Township, at $29,000 to fill a field investigator position vacated by Thomas Moran’s retirement.
A former township police officer and state Game Commission dispatcher, Dobinick has worked as a county deputy coroner since October 2013, Lisman said. Dobinick will be on call to handle routine death reviews, primarily in the county’s southern half, and assist at a county morgue expected to open at the county’s new record storage building in Hanover Township this spring, the coroner said.