Intelligence Report: Cook County morgue will finally use free grave offer

April 14, 2012 6:44:18 AM PDT
Nearly three months after the I-Team revealed that bodies were piled up at the Cook County Morgue, there is about to be a change in the way indigent remains are buried.

In this Intelligence Report: Cook County officials for the first time will allow individual burials instead of using mass graves.

In Cook County, the question is, How to avoid mass graves for the destitute dead? The county morgue has had a long-standing contract with a south suburban cemetery to operate common pauper's graves and nobody ever complained -- until the state ran out of money for indigent burials and the bodies had to be stacked up at the morgue.

Now, for the first time, plans are in place to put some indigent bodies in separate graves donated by Catholic Cemeteries.

"I really don't know what's taken so long, have no idea," said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart.

It was early February when Sheriff Dart arranged for 300 free gravesites from Catholic Charities, burial liners and transportation of the remains from the county morgue. As the I-Team first uncovered, dozens of bodies were stacked outside coolers and on floors, many piled up in a disrespectful manner-some left open and exposed.

"There's no reason why these people should be waiting and not have that closure, so we offered them 300 graves," said Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago's Roman Szabelski.

But, even as Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle deployed managers to take over day-to-day oversight of the morgue, the Catholic Cemeteries offer of free, individual gravesites went nowhere quickly.

"If it ever occurred where we needed a backup for burial, then we could take advantage of that," said Robin Kelly, Cook County's chief administrative officer.

That position appears to have now changed.

Later this month, the first sizable group of indigent bodies will be buried here at Mt. Olivet Cemetery on the Far Southwest Side, according to both county officials and the director of Catholic Cemeteries.

The burials are scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, April 25. The plan calls for as many as 25 bodies to be transported in hearses donated by Cook County funeral directors and buried in individual graves.

But the Catholic cemetery burials will not bring an end to Cook County's use of mass pauper's graves at a facility in Homewood.

Unclaimed and unidentified bodies will still end up there, and so will the remains of those whose families do not want them buried in a Christian religious cemetery, free or not.

Even as the planning for the April 25 Catholic Cemeteries burial is being finalized, the county held another mass grave indigent burial on Friday. A county spokesperson says those will continue at least monthly.