No such thing as a free burial

February 29, 2012 9:29:48 PM PST
As bodies piled up at the Cook County Morgue, Catholic Cemeteries offered to ease the crisis by providing free grave sites to the medical examiner.

That offer, made weeks ago, has gone nowhere, prompting new questions about mismanagement at the county morgue.

It was an offer that seemed too good to refuse in early February. Catholic Cemeteries would simply give 300 individual graves to county officials so poor families could have dignified burials of their loved ones.

Wednesday night, though, there appears to be no such thing as a free burial in Cook County, as the gravesite offer seems caught up in misunderstanding and miscommunication and may end up as a missed opportunity.

This isn't Bosnia, a Chechnyan war zone, or the third world, but plywood coffins in mass graves are the final resting spots for Cook County's indigent dead. It is a sight that overwhelmed Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

"What we do every day is to take care of the families who have lost somebody, and that pain is sharp enough, and so you really don't need to make that pain any harder by delaying the burial and bringing some type of closure, so we just thought we'd step up and offer to the county some grave spaces to see if we can help them out," said Szabelski.

Three weeks ago Wednesday, Catholic Cemeteries offered 300 gravesites to Cook County's Medical Examiner so remains that had been piling up in the morgue could be given individual burials in one of the church's 44 cemeteries instead of the usual mass burials.

"We would provide the grave space, do the internment or the digging, opening and closing of the grave... and then the concrete outer container that the casket would go into," said Szabelski.

Szabelski contacted Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who he had helped in 2009 when Dart investigated a grave desecration and reselling scheme at Burr Oak Cemetery. To save the county money, Dart offered to have jail inmates build coffins for the indigent burials.

"They haven't taken advantage of this offer at all to date, I'm not quite clear why. It's something that, I'll be quite honest with you, should have been acted on immediately. To think of an organization like the Catholic Cemeteries being so outrageously generous and us just not acting overnight," said Dart. "I mean, I don't have a lot of patience, and for something like this, this is something we need to restore people's faith in our county and that we have a crisis, we deal with it decisively - quickly."

"We definitely appreciate the offer," said Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly.

Despite the offer, Wednesday, in an exclusive interview, Kelly, who oversees the Medical Examiner's office, said the bodies in the morgue cannot simply be moved en masse and buried in Catholic Cemeteries.

"No, it's not going to be that we're taking 300 bodies and burying them there, no, that's not the intent," said Kelly. "If it ever occurred where we needed a backup for burial, then we could take advantage of that."

"Remember, some of those bodies could be veterans, some of the bodies, the family may already have an arrangement made where their loved one or their friend is going to be buried at," said Kelly. "We just can't take everybody. We don't have the right to do that."

What about the remains that no one claims or wants - the ones that usually end up in mass graves? Nearly 80 were buried a few weeks ago.

Wednesday night, county officials say that if logistics, legalities and cost can be worked out, then it is possible some indigent remains might be buried in the free Catholic graves.

Kelly contends that even though the graves are free, there will be costs connected to 300 individual burials - costs she says the county cannot afford, but both Catholic Cemeteries and Dart say all costs will be donated including transportation and concrete burial vaults.

There seems to be concern among some top county officials about fairness - what happens when those 300 free graves are gone and mass burials are once again the only option.