Western Illinois coroner will hold your family's ashes hostage for $1,000, won't produce a death certificate without payment

Adams County Coroner James Keller in western Illinois has a great way to self-fund his department: if a poor person dies and their family can't afford the $1,000 for cremation, Keller just dumps the ashes in an unmarked mass grave; and then if the family needs a death certificate to access their dead loved one's estate, Keller makes them sign over the first $1,000 out of the estate to his office before he'll hand over the paperwork.

Keller — a funeral director — says he has no choice because the state cut funding. Grieving families in Adams County now crowdfund to get their loved ones' ashes and death certificate.

Cookson likes Keller's program and said and it's not right that some are making him out to be "next to the devil." While some places such as Chicago's Cook County pay for indigent burials, in other counties poor residents must call around to funeral homes until they find one that will help.

"These people that don't have any money are very, very lucky to live in Adams County," Cookson said.

Keller also works as a funeral director, but he insists his decision to create the policy was unrelated to his other job.

He says he had 90 inquiries about indigent burials last year. He says he asks families multiple times if they're sure they want to sign over their loved one's body, and gives them time to change their minds. He says he doesn't give them the death certificate or ashes to protect against "abuse," such as a case in which he later learned a family that didn't want to pay for burial had received life insurance.

Illinois coroner to poor: Pay $1000 or county keeps remains [Sarah Burnett/AP]