‘Sacrilegious’ — bodies piling up at Cook County morgue
BY LISA DONOVAN AND LAUREN FITZPATRICK Staff Reporters January 14, 2012 2:42AM
Updated: February 15, 2012 8:09AM
To the disgust of some staff, bodies are piling up at the office of the Cook County Medical Examiner, stacked atop each other in blue plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler because of ongoing financial woes, the Sun-Times has learned.
All the storage trays are full, and many have a second body on them, according to sources in the office. Some 400 adults and about 100 babies are currently being kept in the cooler designed for under 300, one source said.
“There are so many bodies in there now, they can’t keep it cool enough. The stench is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” another source in the office said. “I think it’s sacrilegious.”
Medical Examiner Nancy Jones said “yes, we do” have a larger than normal number of bodies at the office.
“What we currently have in our cooler is somewhere around 300 bodies,” she said. “There is not twice that number.”
Jones said there is a backup in burials of babies because of a change in a county ordinance. Last year, critics raised questions about the remains of babies and fetuses — many who had died at birth or as a result of miscarriage — being combined for burial. So county commissioners changed the ordinance requiring the remains of babies and fetuses be placed in separate compartments.
“We haven’t been able to do any infant or fetal burials because we are waiting for some special boxes to be designed and built,” Jones said.
“There are some [adult] bodies stacked on top of boxes right now in the cooler. They’re not going to be there much longer because some of them should be put in burial ‘shells’ [wooden coffins] because there’s [an indigent] burial coming up.”
Typically after examination or autopsy, bodies remain at the office for a few days until funeral directors pick them up for burial or cremation.
But when grieving families can’t afford a burial, the county takes over. Last fall, the medical examiner’s office revealed a controversial plan to donate to science the remains that go unclaimed after only two weeks unless families object. Others were still to be buried in the pauper’s graves in Homewood, for which the county previously paid $300 each. But a source said delivery of the “burial boxes” has stopped because the medical examiner’s office hasn’t paid the company that builds the them — another reason for the bodies piling up.
While Jones said there is no average for the number of bodies kept in the morgue, she said the increase in the number of bodies is the result, in part, of state aid to help pay for burials of those who die without any assets being slashed.
“That is really the big part of it,” Jones said.
The state last summer cut $13 million from the program. Last week, Jones said, the county received word that the state had reinstated funding.