Potter’s field burial not so lonely after all
By NEIL STEINBERG firstname.lastname@example.org November 7, 2011 7:39AM
Burial of 24 bodies from the Cook County Medical Examiners office in a pauper's grave at the Memorial Gardens Cemetery 600 Ridge Road Homewood,Il. Friday, November 4, 2011 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: December 8, 2011 8:13AM
A boxy U-Haul truck wends its way slowly along the curving roadway of Homewood Memorial Gardens, to a group waiting by a large, shallow hole in a section of the cemetery known as The Garden of the Good Samaritan No. 11. The sun is bright, the sky blue, a pleasant day for November.
The truck backs up to the lip of the hole. The rear door opens to reveal 24 plywood coffins. A corrugated metal ramp is run from the truck into the pit.
A smell rolls out that I’ve come to think of as “refrigerated death,” a queasy blend of meat and bleach. The bodies are fresh from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office on Harrison.
Last month I wrote a column contrasting the dignified ceremony that Loyola conducts for its medical school cadavers, complete with poems, prayers and priests, with what I imagined to be the lonely burial at potter’s field: “the sack shrouded body is tossed into a pit with a minimum of fuss.”
Even as I typed those words, it struck me: I had overstepped what I actually knew and launched into speculation — dangerous for a journalist — and if I was going to comment on this, I had better go see what I was talking about.
The burials are conducted monthly. These two dozen bodies had arrived at the morgue in July, and their relatives either couldn’t be found or refused to pay for a funeral. The medical examiner, Dr. Nancy Jones, wants to donate such unclaimed bodies to science, both to fill the shortage of medical cadavers and save the county the $289 per coffin paid to Homewood. But there was a public outcry, and such donations have been temporarily suspended while she re-evaluates the procedures.
The hole is shallow, about 3 feet. Homewood is built upon stone; anything deeper must be jackhammered out of rock. Illinois law requires only 18 inches of earth over a coffin; to comply, the soil is mounded on graves.
Four gravediggers —Adam Springer, Michael Scott, Gregory Blackshire and Eli Martinez, who wears a kerchief over his face to ward off the smell — muscle the pine boxes down the ramp, aided by four students from the Worsham College of Mortuary Science, in Wheeling — Chris Nelson, Nikkia Brown, Addie Cassidy and Darrell Randolph, who wears a nice suit for this dirty job, which earns them extra credit. Some of the coffins are very heavy — corpses are fatter nowadays. The coffins in the truck are leaking.
“We do wash it out and bleach it,” says Homewood’s Kelly McCarthy.
The pine boxes squeak, dragged against each other, then rumble down the ramp, splintering as they go. As each is pulled off the truck, a number is read off a small round brass tag.
“Two ninety-five, got it,” says McCarthy. “Oh yeah, he’s a heavy one,” grunts Scott. “He’s a biggie.”
In 30 minutes the work is done. The grave diggers, the students, McCarthy, plus someone from the ME’s office, sent to keep an eye on things, gather by the grave containing the remains of 20 men and four women.
Tim Kowalski, who teaches at Worsham, reads from a black binder.
“Bless me God,” he begins, then recites the 23rd Psalm: “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . ”
“We commend to God the souls of these individuals whose mortal remains lie before us and to commit their bodies to the earth . . . ,” he continues. “We did not know these people. Many things about them will remain always a mystery to us. We do not know what were the circumstances of their lives . . . . Many may have died in poverty. Others might have simply outlived their families. Our beginnings do not know our ends. . . . We do not know any of these things, but one thing we do know, they were human beings, and at the end of their lives they deserve to be treated with respect. Our common humanity demands that these lives should not pass from the earth unremembered.”
He asks for a moment of silence and, as if on cue, birds chirp. The 24 names and numbers are read aloud. Then we who are not dead return to our lives on this crisp, bright autumn day while the backhoe does its work.