Reporting Nancy Harty
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CHICAGO (CBS) – A Cook County commissioner wants the county sheriff to take over some of the duties of burying indigent and unidentified people, after a backlog at the county morgue led to more than 300 bodies being stacked up at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office earlier this year.
Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12th) has introduced a proposed ordinance that would require the Cook County Sheriff’s office take over some of the indigent burial duties that have long been contracted out to a privately-owned cemetery.
As WBBM Newsradio’s Nancy Harty reports, from 1911 until 1971, the county buried thousands of unclaimed indigent and unidentified bodies at a county cemetery near the Oak Forest Hospital of Cook County.
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Fritchey said he doesn’t know why the county stopped using that cemetery, but said it should resume the practice of burying indigent and unidentified remains on its own.
“We believe that we can bring this in-house, and do the job better, more effectively, with better oversight,” Fritchey said.
He has Sheriff Tom Dart’s support. Under the plan, the Sheriff’s office would have jail inmates build caskets and assist with burials on a five-acre site near the old Oak Forest Hospital.
Fritchey said canceling the current contract with Homewood Memorial Gardens – which he described as a human landfill – would save the county $150 million.
Earlier this year, the county morgue came under intense scrutiny when cell phone pictures were released to the media, showing bodies stacked up in blue bags outside a cooler. Meanwhile, the cooler itself was supposed to hold 300 bodies, but had been filled with 363.
The excess bodies were eventually buried and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has begun implementing changes to avoid future problems with overcrowding of bodies at the morgue.
Several employees at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office have been fired since then, and the office has begun working to fill vacancies for administrative positions, pathologists, and assistant medical examiners.
Preckwinkle also instituted daily inspections of the cooler at the morgue, and ordered the use of new technology to help track down relatives of the dead who are brought to the office in order to speed up the burial process.
The morgue has also begun placing time limits on how long the bodies of indigent people can be stored in the cooler, as well as how long the morgue will keep remains for families trying to collect enough money for a burial. The county will also put in place new training standards for the staff, as well as a new disciplinary process.
Homewood Memorial Gardens also faced its own problems in recent months. Dart revealed last month that 11 bodies at Homewood were left in storage and unburied for a week.
Last year, authorities had to deal with Homewood’s practice of stacking bodies of indigents in large graves that had to be dug up, identified and properly reburied.