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Editorial: A dignified alternative
Cremation should be an option for medical examiner

Monday, August 05, 2013
Chicago Tribune

Last year, Cook County staffers investigating alleged mismanagement at the county morgue counted 363 bodies crowded in a cooler meant to hold 300. Some of them had been there for more than a year.

Bodies appeared to be handled haphazardly, with some stacked on top of each other and others wrapped in bags with limbs exposed. The grim findings led to a shake-up at the morgue, and a new medical examiner was named.

The backlog was blamed on several factors, including the temporary loss of state funding for burials of people who were on public aid. That didn't excuse the appalling lack of respect shown to the bodies of Cook County's indigent.

But tough economic times mean that medical examiners across the country are handling more and more unclaimed bodies because relatives don't have money to pay for burials. And many governments are turning to cremation as a less expensive means of dealing with those bodies.

In Cook County, those bodies are buried at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $480 each. Cremation would cost roughly half that, Medical Examiner Stephen Cina said. He's asking the County Board to pass an ordinance that would authorize that option. The board should do so.

Under the proposal, the medical examiner would have discretion to cremate a body if the deceased left no funds that could be used for burial and if family members couldn't or wouldn't take responsibility for the body. Relatives could still register a religious or other objection to cremation. It also wouldn't be an option if the deceased's identity isn't known.

Cremated remains would be stored at the morgue for two years. If they're not claimed by then, the county could dispose of them.

This proposal is freighted with emotional considerations. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity after death. That's why those who don't have money for a decent burial are afforded one at public expense. But taxpayers have limited resources, a reality that contributed to the disturbing and disrespectful scene at the Cook County morgue last year. That can't happen again.

Cremation isn't just for those with limited funds. It's increasingly common across all economic groups. Last year, the number of cremations in the U.S. topped 1 million for the first time — a rate of more than 40 percent — according to the Cremation Association of North America. By 2018, more than half of deaths in the U.S. will result in cremation, the group predicts. That's up from less than 15 percent in 1985.

Many people prefer to have their remains scattered in some meaningful setting instead of resting beneath a headstone in a cemetery. Some appreciate the portability — survivors can take their loved ones' remains with them if they move.

If the medical examiner is permitted to choose cremation, where appropriate, the county could hold more bodies, and for much longer, than it can now. That would give families more time to claim the remains. And it would help assure that their loved ones were treated with respect to the end.

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