Luzerne County Coroner William Lisman questions why people aren’t up in arms about the drug overdose deaths of 70 residents last year.
“If there was a war going on and we were bringing home 70 soldiers in one year, people would be protesting in the streets to stop it,” Lisman said. “Accidental drug overdoses go under the radar, and it’s unbelievable to me.”
After the 1,091 deaths from natural causes, drug overdoses were the leading killer of county residents, according to newly released 2013 statistics compiled by Lisman’s office.
Annual overdose deaths ranged from 45 to 69 since 2002, with 66 in 2012. The deceased last year and in prior years were of varied ages and in mixed socio-economic groups, he said.
“It’s not just young adults, and they’re not all poor or rich,” Lisman said, noting the county had “maybe 15” overdose deaths annually in the mid-1990s.
Suicides are the next leading cause of death in the county, with 53 last year, the statistics show.
Last year’s number is a “little high” because the 10-year annual average is closer to 45, Lisman said.
He has come to expect around one suicide per week, though there were three since Memorial Day.
“Hopefully, I’ll go three weeks without any,” he said.
The coroner stresses the frequency of suicides to grieving family members, saying many are unaware.
“I try to let them know they’re not alone and that what happened with their loved one is not unusual,” said Lisman, who leaves his contact information with family members if they want information about support groups or other programs.
Financial struggles, health problems and chronic depression are the primary reasons cited for the suicides, he said.
“It’s not too many times that a suicide is a total surprise to friends and family members,” he said.
Most of the suicides — 32 — were carried out by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the statistics show. The other causes: hanging, 12; intentional overdoses, five; carbon monoxide, two; and jumping, two.
Some other causes of death last year:
• Motor vehicle crashes, 43
• Accidents from falls, drownings, fires and other mishaps, 38
• Homicides, 21
The number of cremations in the county has more than doubled in the last 12 years, from 814 in 2002 to 1,778 last year, Lisman said.
Increased public and religious acceptance of cremation primarily have driven the increase, he 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, Lisman said.
For example, if someone dies from falling down steps, the coroner’s office may contact the doctor to make sure that no foul play is suspected.
Like most counties, Luzerne charges a fee for each cremation request review, currently $25.
Sixteen people who died last year were buried at the county’s expense because nobody claimed the bodies, the statistics show.
“A couple of years ago, the typical number of unclaimed bodies was 10, so it’s slowly increasing,” Lisman said.
In compliance with state mandates, the county spends around $700 on a crude casket, plot and burial with no service, Lisman said.
The coroner’s office painstakingly identifies and contacts friends and family members who may be willing to accept the deceased and burial expenses, waiting weeks to ensure nobody was missed, Lisman said.
“In several cases last year, there were family members notified who refused to step up,” he said.
He’s spoken to spouses of the deceased who said they have been separated for years and “don’t care” about the person who died or burial arrangements.
Occasionally family members contact his office seeking information needed to process life insurance claims, even though they had been unwilling to claim the body of the person involved in their insurance claim, he said.
Counties have no legal access to life insurance to recoup their burial expenses, he said. However, the county can claim money in bank accounts as reimbursement for burials.
“We spend a lot of time researching to try to get our money back,” Lisman said.