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Cook Co. burial problems part of national trend

It sounds like a scene from a horror movie — a single box loaded with the remains of 26 infants and assorted unidentified human limbs.

But the gruesome discovery in the pauper’s burial section at Homewood Memorial Gardens may not be a problem unique to Cook County, according to Tony Cox, the legislative chairman and former president of the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association.

The combination of limited legal oversight and growing numbers of indigent burials in major cities like Chicago mean “I’m satisfied that there’s some real similarities between Cook County and other parts of the country,” Cox said.

Cox, who also serves as the coroner in Downstate Gallatin County, said he ensures any indigents his office buries are placed in individual caskets and laid to rest in clearly marked and recorded graves.

That avoids the problems allegedly happening in Homewood — where grieving relatives have long complained of missing markers and poor record keeping — but it is more expensive than cremation, now the favored option in many cities and states, Cox added.

“If someone shows up five years later and says ‘That was my Dad,’ the remains can be disinterred and buried with the rest of the family,” he said. “We’re all human beings.”

Burials at the nation’s largest potter’s field, on Hart Island, New York City — where 800,000 bodies are buried — follow the same procedure, according to New York City Department of Corrections spokesman Stephen Morello.

While adult coffins are stacked three deep by department of corrections inmates at Hart Island, stillborn babies and other children are always buried in individual caskets, also stacked one on top of the other, Morello said.

Detailed records that allow bodies to be located and disinterred are kept, he added.

Describing the discoveries at Homewood as “troubling,” National Funeral Directors Association spokeswoman Jessica Koth said cemeteries should be subjected to federal oversight, just as funeral directors are.

The association supported legislation sponsored last year by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st) in the wake of the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal that would have required cemeteries to maintain accurate records, she said.

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