Poor stacked in mass graves at Illinois cemetery

Stillborn babies are buried by the dozens in the same wooden box and the bodies of indigent adults are stacked in mass graves at a Chicago-area cemetery that inters the county’s poor and unknown dead, authorities said Thursday.

CHICAGO (AP) — Stillborn babies are buried by the dozens in the same wooden box and the bodies of indigent adults are stacked in mass graves at a Chicago-area cemetery that inters the county’s poor and unknown dead, authorities said Thursday.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart called for a review of the cemetery’s contract at a news conference in which he criticized the operation for haphazard practices and restated his belief that the state needs legislation requiring DNA collection on all unidentified bodies.

Homewood Memorial Gardens President Tom Flynn told The Associated Press that the cemetery follows protocol and does the best it can for the $239 it receives per body. He said the cemetery was being made a scapegoat and suggested Dart was trying to drum up attention for the legislation.

Sheriff’s department video of a Feb. 1 burial of indigents at the cemetery shows workers unloading a rental truck packed to the ceiling with more than a dozen wood coffins. In the video, workers use a backhoe to stack the boxes into a single open hole in the ground.

One box is labeled with 10 names, which Dart said were the names of infants.

"From a law enforcement standpoint, we were disturbed," Dart said. "From a human standpoint, we were absolutely appalled."

Dart said babies whose parents can’t afford a decent burial sometimes are put in a box with assorted bones and limbs, sometimes including animal remains, identified as "mixed tissues." Bodies layered eight high over two decades have created an elevated hill in a section of the private cemetery.

Flynn said the cemetery is inspected yearly by the county medical examiner’s office. He said it has an adequate system for tracking where specific bodies are buried and has no control over what’s in the wooden coffins it receives from the medical examiner.

"We don’t control the number of babies that go in a box or what they put in a box," Flynn said.

Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy L. Jones said in a statement that remains of fetuses or stillborn babies transferred from hospitals "are handled respectfully and placed in an adult-sized burial shell … There are no other types of remains present in the burial shell."

Jones said remains are interred in individual burial shells "in every other situation."

"I fully agree with Sheriff Dart that Homewood is in violation of their contract with Cook County," she said.

Dart called for Cook County commissioners to hold a hearing before signing a new contract for indigent burials. He said he supports a bill introduced in the Legislature last week that would require DNA samples and metal ID tags on unidentified bodies, limit how many bodies can be stacked in a grave and prohibit burying multiple people in one casket.

"The process is chaos at best," Dart said. "If you are attempting to try to bring closure of a case of a missing person right now in this county, good luck. Good luck finding that person. There is no DNA taken in many of the cases . and there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to how people are buried."

Dart estimated the Homewood cemetery, which has had the contract for 26 of the past 30 years, may have 8,000 bodies buried in its paupers section.

The sheriff witnessed the mass burial Feb. 1 when he visited the cemetery with Jason Moran, a sheriff’s department detective who’s been investigating the practices since the department uncovered a scandal involving the desecration of bodies at the area’s Burr Oak Cemetery in 2009.

Moran said he uttered a prayer as he stood near the lip of the open mass grave watching the burial of the wooden coffins.

"When I got there, I was thinking about work and looking at it from a law enforcement standpoint. But then I realized I was at a graveside funeral, really, and because I’m Catholic, I did the sign of the cross and a silent prayer," Moran said. "I mean, these were real people."

Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Photo Caption: This image from video taken Feb. 1, 2011 and released Feb. 17 by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, shows a worker at Homewood Memorial Gardens cemetery in Homewood, Ill., stacking wooden coffins in a mass grave. At a news conference Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says he was "absolutely appalled" by the chaotic burial practices for indigents and unidentified bodies by the suburban Chicago cemetery that has the county contract. (AP Photo/Cook County Sheriff’s Department)


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