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Cook County fails to respond to cemeteries’ offer of free burials

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lauren FitzPatrick and Lisa Donovan

The graves have been selected, transportation lined up and burial services planned as Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago is standing by with an offer to bury up to 300 of the bodies languishing in the Cook County morgue — at no cost to taxpayers.

Only the county, struggling with overcrowding in the morgue’s storage cooler, hasn’t called to greenlight the burials.

“We just haven’t heard from the county,” said Roman Szabelski, who as head Catholic Cemeteries offered to help clear up a backlog of indigent burials.

Szabelski, who worked with Cook County during the Burr Oak Cemetery debacle, offered on Feb. 8 to bury up to 300 bodies at various Catholic cemeteries in the area, including Mt. Olivet Cemetery near 111th Street and Sacramento Avenue on the South Side.

His offer came in the wake of Sun-Times reports in January that the morgue was overcrowded, with bodies double stacked in trays or piled up on the floor in blue tarps while they awaited burial.

On Wednesday, Szabelski added that funeral directors volunteered free transportation and graveside services for the bodies.

The free funerals just await a green light from the county, he said.

“For whatever reason, they’re hesitant, or they don’t need” the help, he said. “There are families out there who need closure and the closure is being held up.

“At this point, let’s start fresh and take care of these families and these people who are sitting in the morgue, waiting.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has installed some of her staff in the office of the Medical Examiner to sort out problems with indigent burials. And state officials have been investigating reports of unsafe working conditions at the morgue.

Preckwinkle’s office could not be reached immediately for comment.

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