Coffins stacked, babies share boxes in county burials

February 17, 2011 4:00:58 PM PST
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart wants new legislation to regulate Illinois cemeteries after he uncovered what he calls ''disturbing'' burial practices.

Sheriff Dart said boxes containing bodies are stacked in mass graves with no clear system for locating specific remains later at Homewood Memorial Gardens. Homewood has had a contract to bury the poor and unclaimed who die in Cook County for 25 years.

While the burials may be legal, Dart calls them immoral and said people's remains are being treated like trash.

"Here at Homewood, when we do our county burials, they are done on the perimeter of the grounds," Kelly McCarthy of Homewood Memorial Gardens.

It's not pretty, but it's a fact of life and death for the indigent in Cook County, who to go final, unmarked resting places. Despite the mass of graves and lack of markers, McCarthy said she can find bodies.

"Yes, I have maps up front down to within a couple of feet at the most," McCarthy said.

Sheriff Dart says that's not entirely true. He released this video of burials he witnessed at Homewood Memorial Gardens the night of the blizzard on Thursday

"We were out there one time when boxes were breaking open and bodies were falling down," Sheriff Dart said.

Sheriff Dart said cemetery employees and his own investigators report burials in which pine boxes are stacked eight high, in some cases, and have little more than hand-scrawled names as a means to identify the body inside. For the remains of young children, the sheriff says conditions are even worse.

"Babies are buried 10, 15 to a box. They're buried in there with animal remains. They're buried with arms and legs from body parts they found throughout the course of the year," Sheriff Dart said.

The owner of Homewood Memorial Gardens does not dispute that the bodies of babies are buried together.

"This is pretty shocking to people when they hear things such as 20 babies buried in the same box, but that is a decision not made my us, it's made by the medical examiner's office," Tom Flynn, owner of Homewood Memorial Gardens, said.

The county pays Homewood Memorial Gardens $239 per burial, which is far less than the $995 the cemetery charges for its least expensive private burial plot.

Sheriff Dart is not suggesting the cemetery's actions are illegal, but said that Cook County's entire approach to burying the indigent needs to change.

" We don't want to be the laughingstock of the world, like another third world country where we take people we don't know and dump them in places. So if it costs a little more, than we should do it," Sheriff Dart said.

Dart showed ABC7 a county contract that indicates the cemetery should not be allowed to stack coffins. However, Homewood Memorial Gardens read from another contract that said the arrangement allows for stacked burials. Homewood did not provide a copy of that contract.

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