Cook Co. mulls plan for unclaimed bodies

April 6, 2011 9:50:47 AM PDT
The Cook County Board is considering new rules on the way burials for the indigent are handled.

The proposed legislation is meant to provide more respect for the dead, said Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, who said he believes he has the support to pass the reform. He visited Homewood Memorial Gardens at 600 Ridge Road in Homewood with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart two weeks ago.

The cemetery currently holds the county contract to conduct burials of the indigent, unclaimed and unknown. Because Homewood Memorial Gardens has run out of burial spaces since securing the contract in 1980, bodies are stacked as much as eight feet high in a manmade hill at the back of the cemetery, where people have been placed in coffins with unidentified limbs, medical waste and non-human debris.

The Cook County Sheriff's Office learned of problems with burial practices as a result of concerns raised in the wake of the burial scandal at Burr Oak Cemetery in south suburban Alsip.

Some of the new requirements Commissioner Fritchey plans to propose include DNA testing for unknown remains and adding those results into a state and national missing persons database. There would be a limit of one body per coffin. A unique, personal I.D. tag would be affixed to all burial shelves and remains, and a medical examiner must attend all indigent burials under the proposal.

Under the new proposal, Homewood's existing contract would be canceled and would have to be put back out for bids with the new requirements included.

"Homewood would be entitled to and I expect that they would come back and bid on the contract again," Fritchey said. "This is not a condemnation of Homewood Memorial Gardens. It is saying that right now the contract that is enforced within this county is insufficient. It needs to be changed. And we need a higher level of scrutiny on both the county medical examiner and on the cemeteries."

The owner of Homewood Memorial Gardens said he believes that his cemetery has done a very good job and says that they do not do it for the money; he says they have a memorial for every burial conducted for the indigent, unknown and unclaimed.

A vote on the measure is expected April 20.