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As economy sinks, counties pick up funeral tab for unclaimed bodies

Cook County Cemetery grounds Oak Forest Hospital Oak Forest once was potter’s field for unclaimed bodies. | Sun-Times Medifile photo

Cook County Cemetery, on the grounds of Oak Forest Hospital in Oak Forest, once was a potter’s field for unclaimed bodies. | Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: November 10, 2011 11:11AM

For years, McHenry County Coroner Marlene Lantz seldom had to worry about providing funerals for residents whose bodies went unclaimed after they died in the far northwest suburbs.

But now, Lantz’s office suddenly is having to arrange — and usually pay for — the burial or cremation of five to six people annually.

“We used to only see one every three or four years,” said Lantz, the coroner since 1998. “It’s a sign of the times. Families aren’t as close as they used to be and the economy is tough.”

McHenry County isn’t alone. Rising funeral costs and a tough economy have resulted in many communities across the country seeing an increase in funerals for indigent people whose bodies go unclaimed.

The trend has been seen “everywhere,” agreed Jacqueline Byers, director of research and outreach for the National Association of Counties. “The reality is, it’s gotten worse.”

Officials in Cook County couldn’t immediately provide statistics, but Medical Examiner Nancy Jones said “the trend appears to be occurring in Cook County as well.”

DuPage County recently buried four people whose bodies went unclaimed and cremated a fifth unclaimed body. Two of the bodies had gone unclaimed for nearly three years — something that previously was unthinkable in the affluent suburban county.

Prior to that, “I can’t remember the last time we had one,” said Chief Deputy Coroner Charlie Dastych.

Some relatives have been reluctant to claim bodies because they are struggling economically and don’t want to pay funeral expenses — particularly if they weren’t in close contact with their deceased family member, county officials said.

“There are more families who have come to us recently with this situation,” said Dastych.

But that decision frequently leaves the counties footing the bill for burials or cremations. DuPage County spent about $8,600 to conduct the five recent burials and cremations of unclaimed bodies, Dastych said.

In McHenry County, burying an indigent or unclaimed person can cost $3,000 or more, said Lantz, a cost that takes a toll on her office budget. Even cremations can cost as much as $2,000, she said.

But the county has no other option.

“It’s because of the economy,” said Lantz. “If they haven’t had contact with them for 10 years, sometimes they’ll say, ‘We don’t want them.’ ”

If they’re legal next of kin, however, relatives can still claim personal property from the deceased — jewelry and other small items — but can still avoid paying for the burial.

“It’s frustrating,” Lantz said.

Lake County officials have seen an increase in the number of unclaimed bodies, but have focused on researching to see if the deceased might qualify for a military funeral to cut county costs, said Coroner Artis Yancey. His staff also checks to see if the deceased have any unclaimed cash or assets that could help cover burial expenses.

“That’s one of our main, significant concerns we’re working on right now,” said Yancey.

Some states have been much harder hit than Illinois.

Johnnetta Moore, administrator for the indigent burial program in Jacksonville, Fla., said the city cremated 306 indigent people in the first 10 months of the fiscal year — up from a total of 241 two years ago. Nevada’s Clark County has recorded a nearly 11 percent increase in indigent burials and cremations over the previous fiscal year, officials there said.

In the Chicago area, some counties haven’t seen an increase.

Will County spent about $500 to cremate one unclaimed body this year, but had none last year, according to the coroner’s office.

In Kane County, the number of burials is lower this year than it was in 2009, when six bodies went unclaimed, officials said. There were two in 2010 and three so far this year.

Kendall County hasn’t had an indigent burial in at least five years.

“We’ve been lucky,” said Coroner Ken Toftoy.

Contributing: Lisa Donovan, Matt Hanley, Jon Seidel, Gannett News Service

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