WHEN BICYCLIST Kenny Demilto was killed Friday morning in an accident involving a school bus, he almost became one of many Philadelphians each year whose loved ones either never identify their bodies at the city morgue - or can't afford to lay them to rest once they do.

For five days, Demilto's body lay unclaimed, while his family and friends scrambled to collect the money to buy him a funeral.

Demilto, 32, who'd been single and living in a rented room before he died on Aramingo Avenue, had no life insurance or savings from his job at a yarn mill. His mother and two brothers are in tough financial straits themselves and hadn't the funds to say a proper goodbye to him.

Yesterday, Demilto's friend Christine Day used her mortgage money, plus some, to pay the $800 it will cost to cremate his body and store his ashes in a nice urn. And so his body was finally released for disposition.

"He'd do the same for me," Day says of Demilto, who'd been like a father to her kids since her fiancé was killed in an accident last year. "He'd never let me lay there like that."

What an awful dilemma: deciding whether to pay for the roof over your head or for the cremation of your dearest friend.

About 120 bodies a year are never claimed from the city's morgue, says Jeff Moran of the city's Department of Health. Half are never identified, or their next of kin never located.

The others are left by those too poor to pay for a funeral. In such cases, says Moran, the city may hold onto the bodies for longer than 90 days, if kin need more time to make financial arrangements with a mortuary.

When all else fails, the city arranges for cremation. Loved ones are allowed to retrieve the ashes later; unclaimed cremains are stored in the medical examiner's office indefinitely.

Which can mean decades.

"We've had cases where a child whose parent may have been a homicide victim will come back as an adult for the ashes," says Moran. "They're relieved to be able to do that.

"So we'll hold onto the ashes forever."

Janet Powell Dailey predicts that Philly's high homicide rate will result in more cremations by the city this year.

"Mostly the poor are being killed," says Dailey, supervisor of the Powell Funeral Home in North Philly. "Their families aren't able to pay for a funeral, and we don't have the ability to give it to them."

It didn't used to be that way, she says. Funeral homes like hers routinely provided one to two funerals per year, gratis, or on credit, to the needy. Plus, everyone had some form of burial insurance, because insurance collectors went door-to-door, collecting $5 a week here, $8 there in premiums for a modest policy.

The practice became too dangerous for honest collectors and too irresistible for unscrupulous ones, so it was discontinued.

And while the state has a fund to help defray funeral costs for homicide victims, Powell says funeral homes still may not take the chance of fronting their costs in those cases, since later investigation has sometimes revealed that, for example, the death was not a homicide at all but an accident.

"So the state won't reimburse the home," says Powell. "And the family won't come back to make good on their bill. Who can afford to run a business that way?" Powell says that she'll always work with families who she knows are making efforts to raise money for a funeral.

As for Christine Day and her redirected mortgage payment, she says she's more worried about her kids. Her teenage daughter knows that Kenny Demilto died last week, but she can't yet bring herself to tell her young son that Demilto is gone.

"When my fiancé died, Kenny was our rock," she says. "He got us through. I don't know who'll get us through this." *

Funds to help defray the death costs of Kenny Demilto can be sent to Margaret Demilto, c/o 6130 Cottage St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19135.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: