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Cook County morgue may cremate some bodies

Bodies stacked top bodies Cook County medical examiner's office 2012.

Bodies stacked on top of bodies in the Cook County medical examiner's office in 2012.

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Updated: October 15, 2013 6:56AM

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office is one step closer to cremating some bodies stored at the county morgue — rather than letting them pile up.

For the first time in county history, the Cook County Board on Wednesday approved changes to an ordinance that would allow the office to explore whether it’s cost-effective and feasible to cremate unclaimed or “disclaimed” bodies, according to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office.

Disclaimed bodies are those in which the office has notified family, but they decline or refuse to claim the body. Unclaimed bodies are identified individuals with no known next-of-kin. Unidentified bodies won’t be cremated.

Cremations won’t begin until a policy is created and recommendations are received from the Medical Examiner Advisory Committee, which is made up of clergy, community leaders and funeral directors, among others.

The county will find a vendor to provide cremation services. And in the meantime, the county will continue to bury indigents at Homewood Memorial Gardens or Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Preckwinkle’s office said cremation costs from $250 to $300 compared with an average of $480 per person for burials. Urns with the remains would be kept up to two years at the medical examiner’s office and returned to next of kin at the family’s request.

In January 2012, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that bodies were stacked atop each other in blue plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler at the morgue. A morgue source called it “sacrilegious,” and the Illinois Department of Labor launched an investigation, finding nearly two dozen violations.

Since then, a series of bosses and other staff have left the medical examiner’s office, including Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones. Her replacement, Dr. Stephen Cina, has pushed to upgrade the office’s practices.

“These revised policies and procedures reflect our determination to bring the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office into the 21st century by employing best, and sensible, practices used by offices across the country,” Preckwinkle said in a statement. “Under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Cina, we are building a staff that is capable of meeting its responsibilities and providing the public with the service it expects and deserves.”

The ordinance also establishes the formal steps the office takes to notify next-of-kin and authorizes the office to charge storage fees for bodies brought in from hospitals and nursing homes, which are not Medical Examiner’s office cases.


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