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The needy also deserve a decent burial

Updated: March 3, 2012 11:41AM

If we don’t care about feeding the hungry, then we certainly aren’t going to care about burying the dead.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when the state suspended its paltry funding to bury the poorest of the poor — the homeless, the seniors who had outlived relatives, the estranged and the mentally ill — bodies started stacking up at the county morgue.

After all, in South Carolina, Republican heavyweight contender Newt Gingrich re-energized his flagging presidential campaign by denouncing President Barack Obama as the “food stamp president.”

Frankly, there was more of a public outcry when the city announced plans to cut library hours than there was in August when the General Assembly stopped paying for indigent funerals to help balance the state’s budget.

Although the state reinstated the $1,103 payments last month, the damage was already done.

“During the interim, the families did not seek any funeral homes because of lack of funds,” said Spencer Leak Sr., president and CEO of Leak & Sons Funeral Homes.

“Consequently the number of remains began to grow,” he said.

But there wasn’t uproar until it was revealed that 363 bodies were crammed into a cooler designed to hold no more than 300.

Then, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle vowed to overhaul the agency and that heads would roll, while Cook County commissioners looked for ways to dump Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones.

But while procedural problems at the agency may go back as far as 2007, that’s likely the biggest problem.

“You can’t get blood from a turnip,” as my mother would say.

Even in good financial times, there were families that had to pass the hat to pay for a funeral.

The situation is far worse today.

“I personally was doing a funeral and before the funeral home would allow the family to proceed, they literally had to take up an offering right there in the middle of the services. It was something they had to do to make sure the cemetery got paid,” said the Rev. David Pope, pastor of Brotherly Love Church in Lawndale.

Pope was part of the coalition that met with Preckwinkle Wednesday morning to discuss how to go about reducing the number of bodies, including dozens that have been at the morgue for as long as 10 months.

In addition, more than one person told Pope that employees at the morgue were unable to tell them whether their loved ones were even at the facility.

“We need to look at putting together some sort of independent review board, and the president did indicate [the county] was going to institute that,” Pope said.

“According to state regulations, there should be an advisory board in place,” he said.

The disgraceful treatment of human remains has happened in other cities, including Los Angeles and Detroit.

In 2009, “the Root” reported that a growing number of families were not claiming bodies at the Wayne County Morgue because they couldn’t pay for funerals. Some of the bodies had been at the morgue for years.

Leak told me his funeral home, along with several others, would be willing to step up and service those families whose loved ones have languished in the Cook County Morgue.

He also suggested recruiting students enrolled in the mortuary sciences to assist in preparing the bodies for burial.

“In the long run, there should be a burial plot of land set aside by either the county or state where individuals could be put in individual graves,” Leak said.

“The mass graves remind me of things that used to happen in World War II. There just ought to be a way that we don’t have to do that.”

This is one of those issues where government can and should take up the slack, if for no other reason than for common decency.

The poor will always be with us, at least that is what the Bible teaches although conservatives would have us believe otherwise.

At the end of one’s life, a box and a bit of dirt shouldn’t be too much to ask.

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