In a corner surrounded by trees at West Hill Cemetery in Dalton hides what many know as the "free grounds." It's owned by the city.

“Some people refer to it as the pauper section. It's been open since 1996,” said Andrew Parker with Dalton Public Works.

Parker says about 380 people are currently buried there. On average, he says about 16 people are buried in the section a year. They estimate they have only 45 spaces left.

“We're gonna run out of space in about three years,” Parker said.

According to Georgia law, counties are responsible for the burial of anyone who is unable to afford it. In Whitfield County, a person is only required to fill out a one-page form.

“The county is basically taking that person at their word because they are certifying that they don't have the funds available to do it,” Parker said.

The county's policy states “a funeral is determined to be indigent when the decedent, his family, and his immediate kindred are indigent and unable to provide for his decent interment.” According to the policy, a decent interment is defined as having the following services provided by a funeral home: transportation of the decedent to the funeral home, clothing, hearse to transport the decedent to the crematorium or gravesite, cremation at a licensed facility.

However, the policy further states direct burial is only allowed “in cases of religious objection.” Parker says that has not been strictly enforced.

“We've been performing basically 100% direct burials.”

The county reimburses Whitfield County funeral homes $450 for each indigent cremation or burial. The city of Dalton then provides the grave space. Parker says public works employees open and close the grave and provide upkeep.

“Each space is essentially valued at $400,” he said. “We're not actually having to pay that but it's tying up workers as well as the space.”

It's why they're leaning towards requiring cremations. Parker says it would get them through the next decade. He made it clear the city wants to continue to help the community.

“We would essentially quadruple the amount of space we had if everybody that falls into this indigent burial process is cremated rather than traditional interment,” Parker said.

But finding more city-owned space is another option.
           
“But we're still in that review process right now to see if space can be made available.”

The Dalton Public Works Committee is creating a review process in hopes of getting feedback from funeral homes and the public. They will discuss the next steps at their committee meeting this month.