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Morgue slows family's effort at proper burial

Monday, January 22, 2007
Special to
by Dawn Turner Trice

After Judy Bernardi, a longtime Rogers Park resident, and her husband, Victor, divorced in 1984, he became estranged from the family. In recent years, the only way she could determine whether he was still alive was by calling the Social Security office.

When she called last October, she learned that Victor Bernardi, 64, had died in August. She broke the news to her daughter, Jessica, 34, of Chicago, and son, Shawn, 35, who lives out of state. The family agreed that even though they hadn't seen Victor Bernardi in years, he deserved a proper burial.

"We got the news and my daughter and I went to the place we knew as his last address," Bernardi said. "He had been evicted." Bernardi learned that her ex-husband later moved into a halfway house on the North Side.

That's where, on Aug. 4, a neighbor, who had talked to him the day before, found Victor Bernardi's body in the kitchen of his efficiency apartment.

Because two months had passed between the time Victor Bernardi died and the Bernardis found out, they knew it was going to be a challenge to track down his remains.

But they were certain they could. He had no other nearby relatives who would have buried him. They couldn't imagine an acquaintance would have done it.

So Judy and Jessica Bernardi began by calling the Cook County medical examiner's office, understanding that unclaimed bodies often are stored there for months.

"The gentleman at the morgue said my father wasn't there and there was no record of him ever being there," Jessica Bernardi said. "He said I should try Homewood [Memorial] Gardens," a kind of potter's field.

But when she called Homewood Memorial Gardens, the staff said her father hadn't been buried there. "That same day I called the morgue back," said Jessica Bernardi. "I said: `Any other ideas?'" There were none.

Driven by her intuition, she continued to call the medical examiner's office. Each time, she spelled her father's name and offered his date of death. But no one knew anything.

"And then I got a whole bunch of information from the [Chicago] police report" from officers who were on the scene the day the body was discovered, she said.

"Suddenly I had a police-report number and information that officially said my father was taken to the county morgue."

She quickly learned she was still out of luck.

"The people at the morgue said they couldn't do anything with a body-bag number and the police report number," she said. "They said they needed a morgue-case number. So I said, `How do I get a case number if you guys say he's not there?'"

She said this went on for a couple of weeks. Then one day she decided to call the office--which takes calls 24 hours a day--at about 7:30 in the morning. She said she spoke to a "nice lady" who left the phone for a few minutes. "When she returned, she said, `I found him and here's your case number.'"

The medical examiner's report listed Victor Bernardi's cause of death as being related to alcoholism. Ironically, his driver's license and state identification card were among his personal effects the entire time.

Mike Boemher, a spokesman for the medical examiner's office, told me last week that he doesn't know why the Bernardis had to make so many calls before Victor Bernardi's remains were located. The morgue has a system that's supposed to make the identification process simple.

When I called to inquire about the deceased, Boemher immediately found his name in the system. He said only two Bernardis had been in the morgue since 1984. He said at this point there's no way of figuring out what went wrong. "We get hundreds of calls a day and one like this is too many," he said. "Even if they didn't call until October, that doesn't matter. This is very troubling."

So, how was that "nice lady" able to find the body when no one else could? Could it be that she was the only staffer--out of the many who answered the phone--who actually cared to look?

Nevertheless, mother and daughter immediately claimed the body, and because Victor Bernardi was a Vietnam veteran, the Veterans Administration paid for his burial.

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