Weeks after offer of free graves, county morgue not ready to bury
By Lauren FitzPatrick and Lisa Donovan Staff Reporters February 29, 2012 12:00PM
HOMEWOOD, IL - JANUARY 18: Workers fill a pauper's grave at Homewood Memorial Gardens with remains from the Cook County morgue of people who could not pay for a burial on January 18, 2012 in Homewood, Illinois. Tough economic times have lead to an increase in the number of indigent burials the morgue, which includes Chicago and the surrounding area, must perform. Thirty people were buried in this grave. No mourners were present. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\137287581.jpg
Updated: April 2, 2012 9:43AM
The graves have been selected, transportation lined up and burial services planned as Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago is standing by with an offer to bury — at next to no cost to taxpayers — up to 300 of the bodies languishing in the Cook County morgue.
Only the county, struggling with overcrowding in the morgue’s storage cooler, hasn’t called to greenlight the burials.
“We just haven’t heard from the county,” said Roman Szabelski, who as head of Catholic Cemeteries offered to help clear up a backlog of indigent burials.
Szabelski, who worked with Cook County during the Burr Oak Cemetery debacle, offered on Feb. 8 burial plots for up to 300 bodies at various Catholic cemeteries in the area, including Mt. Olivet Cemetery near 111th Street and Sacramento Avenue on the South Side.
His offer came in the wake of Sun-Times reports in January that the morgue was overcrowded, with bodiesdouble stacked in trays or piled up on the floor in blue tarps while they awaited burial.
On Wednesday, Szabelski added that funeral directors volunteered free transportation and graveside services for the bodies.
The free funerals now just await a green light from the county, he said.
“For whatever reason, they’re hesitant, or they don’t need” the help, he said. “There are families out there who need closure and the closure is being held up.
“At this point, let’s start fresh and take care of these families and these people who are sitting in the morgue, waiting.”
County spokeswoman Jessey Neves said meetings have taken place between county officials and Szabelski’s staff to discuss all the costs involved in the burials, and the county plans another meeting with them and the funeral directors who’ve offered transportation, she said. The medical examiner’s office will pay for concrete burial shells, she said.
“We are grateful for the offer and plan to work with Catholic Cemeteries and the funeral directors,” she said. “It’ll be something else we can offer families.”
But, she said, there are no burials scheduled yet in the religious cemeteries.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has installed some of her staff in the medical examiner’s office to sort out problems with indigent burials. And state officials have been investigating reports of unsafe working conditions at the morgue.
Meanwhile, the county has buried some of the poor people who had been stored in the morgue cooler, Neves said. The burials took place Jan. 18 and Feb. 10 in south suburban Homewood Memorial Gardens, which contracts with the county, Neves said. The contract burials will continue as scheduled, she said.
She said the number of bodies in the corpse cooler, which fluctuates daily, was slightly less than 300 on Wednesday.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who brokered the deal between Szabelski and the county, was frustrated to learn it was still under discussion.
“It was an incredibly kind offer,” he said. “Here’s someone who’s going to resolve this nagging county problem and then we don’t do anything with it?
“Insane, this is insane.”