Intelligence report: No consensus on indigent burials in Cook County

June 18, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The I-Team has learned of a new plan that would put county government back in the burial business.

Only 200 indigent dead come through the Cook County Morgue every year, but the manner in which those remains are handled -- the poorest among us -- has become a litmus test on government sensitivity.

Tuesday, Cook County commissioners will consider yet another proposal to deal with indigent burials. This one would result in the county once again running a cemetery.

This is how Cook County currently buries those whose families cannot afford private accommodations: Several times a year, mass graves are dug under a government contract with south suburban Homewood Gardens Cemetery.

The burials are paid for by Illinois public aid funds.

Late last year, as state funding was stopped, bodies of the poor, indigent and unidentified began piling up at the Cook County Morgue. When the I-Team reported photos of remains mixed with garbage and stacked in the open, the county medical examiner came under fire.

Officials say this situation has been cleaned up, and with state public aid restored, mass burials have resumed at Homewood Gardens.

County Commissioner John Fritchey says that the private contract should be stopped and those indigent bodies should be buried on vacant county property near the old Oak Forest Hospital.

"We have the land, we have the equipment," said Fritchey. "Through the sheriff's office, we have labor from the inmates. We can actually handle these burials in a more decent and ethical way than they've been being down, and it would save millions of dollars for the taxpayers in the years to come."

A recent memo from Cook County's chief administrative officer recommends against the use of any Oak Forest Hospital site, contending the use of county land, employees and equipment would cost more than outsourcing it and that even a 5-acre cemetery would devalue the property's potential sale value.

But Commissioner Fritchey's proposed county cemetery would be adjacent to the Catholic cemetery that already exists. He says neither money nor valuation are legitimate reasons to keep the vacant land from being used for indigent burials and he will urge commissioners Tuesday to pass his proposal that calls for it to be studied.

"I've been in government long enough to know that common sense doesn't always win the day," Fritchey said.

Commissioner Fritchey's proposal does not appear to have the backing of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, whose spokesperson cites the Bureau of Administration report that it wasn't feasible.

Fritchey says he hopes that opposition to his proposed overhaul of indigent burials isn't political-- just because it would transfer authority from the president's office to the sheriff's department.

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