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County commissioner’s plan: Bury indigent at Oak Forest Hospital site

Thursday, May 10, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY

A five-acre site at the former Oak Forest Hospital in the south suburbs should be set aside for a county cemetery for indigent burials, according to a plan proposed Thursday by Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-Chicago).

By resuming its own cemetery operations, the county could save $180 million and meet its needs for the next 100 years, Fritchey estimated.

He said he’ll ask the county board to direct the sheriff, medical examiner and forest preserve district to develop a plan to open a new cemetery by January, said Bridget Luehrsen, Fritchey’s spokeswoman.

The new cemetery would be immediately west of a former county cemetery, where nearly 91,000 bodies were buried from 1911 to 1971. The land at the southeast corner of 159th Street and Cicero Avenue is owned and would continue to be owned by the forest preserve district, Luehrsen said.

Fritchey’s plan would allow the county to bury its indigent, unclaimed and unknown bodies with “greater oversight, reverence and respect,” Fritchey said.

His plan will be introduced at Monday’s county board meeting, Luehrsen said.

After witnessing problems pertaining to haphazard burials at Burr Oak Cemetery and seeing the burials at Homewood Memorial Gardens, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart pushed for reforms. He has endorsed Fritchey’s plan and proposed that county jail inmates make the caskets and assist with burials.

The county now pays $150,000 yearly to Homewood Memorial Gardens, which has been handling burials for the county since 1980.

But new burial standards, approved by the county a year ago, are expected to increase those costs significantly, Luehrsen said.

Bodies were being stacked eight high in a man-made hill, and people were being placed in coffins with unidentified limbs and non-human debris, sheriff’s investigations revealed.

Fritchey said the current process does not properly identify these individuals.

Since 1983, 401 unidentified bodies were buried at Homewood Memorial Gardens, but data on only 86 has been entered into the National Crime Information Center database due to a lack of proper documentation, he said. This hinders police in solving crimes, he said.

The new standards require separate burial areas for unknown persons, babies and fetuses; visible markers; maintaining records that include names when known, gender, race and identifying characteristics of the dead; date and location of burial; and entering that data in the Cemetery Oversight Database within 10 days.

It prohibits multiple bodies in one grave space unless they are in containers, with no more than three coffins in one grave.



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