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Can’t pay for burial? Cook County morgue to donate bodies to science

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones. FILE PHOTO

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones. FILE PHOTO

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Updated: November 15, 2011 10:14AM



Grieving families who can’t afford a burial will see their loved ones’ remains donated to science unless they object under a controversial Cook County rule, officials said.

Bodies will be kept at the county morgue for just two weeks before they are handed to a non-profit organization that supplies them to universities for research and use in anatomy classes, Medical Examiner Nancy Jones wrote in a memo to staff last week.

Unclaimed remains — which the county has also previously paid $300 to bury in a pauper’s grave in Homewood — will also be kept for only two weeks, then donated, effective immediately.

The Anatomical Gift Association signed a deal to receive the bodies under the 1885 Illinois Cadaver Act. Its executive vice-president Paul Dudek says the remains are needed to fill a shortage of donors willing to leave their cadavers. The AGA received 600 requests for cadavers last year but only 483 usable donations.

To be useful, bodies must have been spared a full autopsy, be free of infectious disease, weigh under 300 pounds and not have decomposed. Around 100 of those the county would otherwise bury are expected to meet the criteria each year, Dudek said.

An additional 60-day period during which the AGA will store bodies before they are dissected gives families a chance to come forward, he said, adding that remains ultimately will be cremated and buried, though he declined to say at which cemetery.

“If they are being interred at the public expense, the public should expect to get some benefit from it,” said Dudek, who charges universities $1,300 per corpse to cover the AGA’s costs.

But relatives of a man who was mistakenly buried in a pauper’s grave when county officials and Chicago Police failed to inform them of his death aren’t convinced.

“It’s wrong on so many levels,” said Vanessa Baker, who didn’t learn that Cook County had buried her brother Michael Ruggio Jr. until four years after his death.

Ruggio died of an overdose and was found with his ID card in May 2002. His family easily could have been found with a basic background search.

“Who are they to say that someone’s body should be used for science when they don’t know the person’s wishes?” Baker said.

Similar mistakes are unlikely under Jones’ regime, according to Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who helped usher the measure through the Cook County Board after learning that Illinois National Guard troops did not have cadavers on which to train.

“Things may have been a little loose in the past . . .,” he said.

Suffredin added that the AGA likely keeps better records than Homewood Memorial Gardens, where the medical examiner’s office came under fire earlier this year for loading multiple baby remains into a single coffin.

He said that families who disapprove can prevent their loved one’s body from being donated, regardless of their ability to pay for a burial — a claim reiterated Monday by Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s spokeswoman Jessey Neves and the AGA.

Jones’ memo makes no such distinction, however. It tells her staff only that “where the next of kin claims that there are no funds for burial, the reporting agent must be instructed to inform the family that the remains of the deceased will be released ... within two weeks ... for the furtherance of medicine and science.”

An eight-page deal between the county and the AGA requires that a newspaper ad be placed to identify bodies being used. But it also does not require the county get the next of kin’s consent, nor does it spell out how families can object.

The deal is similar to one in place in Maryland, where the state has harvested indigent remains for science since 1949.

Ronn Wade, who leads Maryland’s cadaver program, said most other states don’t follow suit because, “They don’t want someone showing up months later saying, ‘What have you done with my uncle Joe?’ ”

Smaller families with more fragile ties mean that more and more bodies go unclaimed these days, he said. “But there’s a public interest in using them, and there’s no alternative in a medical education.”

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles, Lisa Donovan



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