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Cook County awards $700k contract to keep indigent burials in state

Updated: October 2, 2012 6:12PM

Cook County will spend as much as $700,000 to bury the indigent at south suburban Homewood Memorial Gardens Cemetery — keeping the burials in state but at a higher cost.

The two-year deal with the Thorton cemetery will cost $711,000. Chicago-based Taylor Funeral Home, whose facilities include a Gary cemetery, came in with the lowest bid at $450,000 for the same contract, but it’s been a long-standing tradition to keep the burials in Illinois — allowing grieving families easy access to visit the graves of loved ones, Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler, a board veteran, argued during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Newly minted Medical Examiner Stephen Cina, too, testified he was in favor of local burials, noting that a visit to Homewood showed a number of flowers on child graves — evidence that it’s important to keep families close to the cemetery. He also said transporting bodies across state lines raises legal issues.

But Commissioner John Fritchey said there’s no law mandating the burials have to be in the county or even the state. And given Homewood’s troubled history when it comes to burying the indigent, the contract should be reconsidered, he said. That includes allegations in 2011 by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart that paupers’ graves were poorly marked and coffins were stacked atop one another — in one case eight deep — in a single taxpayer-funded burial plot. Dart said then that was of particular concern for anyone tied to a police investigation. In addition, the Cook County Sheriff’s office was tipped off by a person who found a loved one’s remains in a storage room with 10 other caskets when it was supposed to be buried at Homewood, sheriff’s officials said. The 11 bodies were quickly buried within days after the sheriff raised the issue.

State law allows delayed burials, but officials said the deceased’s family should be notified of any delay, which was not done. Officials from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which oversees cemeteries launched an investigation in to the incident.

The previous two-year contract with Homewood was $144,500, but Preckwinkle spokeswoman Kristen Mack explained that new specifications on how the bodies are to be buried have driven costs up from $289 per burial to $474. The county pays per burial and the contract is capped at $711,000; officials don’t expect to reach that cap.

The cemetery’s president explained Tuesday that under the new contract there will be three areas — one for infants, another for identified adults and still another for unidentified adults. By separating unidentified remains it will make it easier to locate the bodies should new DNA come in that needs to be tested. And they are restricted to burying bodies three deep.

“That requires mapping, bringing in engineers and all new land” to ensure the proper burials, Tom Flynn Sr., president of Homewood Memorial Gardens, told the Sun-Times. “We can’t go in and do multiple burials like we did in the past.”

He added: “It was the county board’s decision to let a new contract — I think that speaks for itself. They investigated everything they could and they decided to give us a new contract. I’d refer you to them.”

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