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Cook County's social worker for the dead helps the unclaimed find final resting places

Monday, September 18, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Angie Leventis Lourgos

1 of
Meet the ME's indigent burial coordinator
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Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune

5:00 am, September 18, 2017

The baby girl was a stranger at her own burial, abandoned by those closest to her in life and death.

She lived less than two hours, dropped from the eighth-floor window of an Uptown high-rise by her teen mother, who had kept the pregnancy a secret.

At All Saints Catholic Cemetery in Des Plaines last week, a crowd of mourners placed pink roses atop a tiny white casket to honor the short life of an infant they never knew.

Among them was one young woman who has attended the funerals of hundreds of unclaimed adults, children and babies. Rebeca Perrone is Cook County's first indigent coordinator, a role comparable to a social worker for the dead.

She was hired in 2015, amid a larger overhaul of the medical examiner's office after a scandalous backlog at the morgue came to light. Graphic photos several years ago revealed bodies stacked on top of one another in a crowded cooler, some with their limbs exposed.

Now it is part of Perrone's mission to ensure a dignified final resting place for those forsaken in death.

"It shows my compassion, being there for them," she said.

Her office shares a wall with the cooler, which doesn't bother her, except when the temperature gets a little chilly. A space heater under the desk warms her as she goes through the list of names of remains that haven't been claimed, calling and sending letters to potential next of kin, hoping to reunite them with their loved ones.

Often family members already know why she's contacting them.

Other times, "I break the news to them that their son, daughter, father is here," she said. "And they didn't know."

Perrone, who is 30 and grew up in Algonquin, strives to be comforting yet professional in explaining the process to the grieving: Relatives have 30 days to retrieve the body or the county will have it cremated. Cremated remains can be released for $100 — a fee that is sometimes waived in cases of financial hardship — and are kept in storage in the basement of the medical examiner's West Side office for up to a year, when they are buried by the county.

Perrone handles some 700 cases a year. Most are adults who died of natural causes, and usually family members make arrangements.

She considers it a success every time remains are collected by next of kin.

"I'll have a cardboard box of remains in my arms and I'm like, 'Well, George is going home today; his family came to pick him up,'" she said. "And that's a good feeling."

'Everybody is your neighbor'

Perrone never sees the bodies, including the abandoned baby girl buried last week.

A neighbor found the newborn on the grass, naked and bloody but breathing. He wrapped her in his sweatshirt and then two baby blankets retrieved from his home as he waited for emergency personnel,but the infant died shortly after at a nearby hospital on Nov. 12, 2015.

"I can't put a face or an injury to the person I'm reading about, the person I'm talking to their family about," Perrone said.

Yet she has an intimate knowledge of where many strangers are spending eternity.

A woman came in recently to pick up her son on the one-year anniversary of his death. She was planning to scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean, as he'd wanted.

One time, cremated remains were split between two friends, to be scattered on opposite coasts.

The job, which pays about $56,000 a year, might sound macabre, but it felt like an ideal fit for Perrone. After studying sociology and criminal justice at Loyola University, she worked for the Indiana Department of Child Services, investigating abuse and neglect claims. A part of her longed to be a detective, but not necessarily a police officer.

Some of her cases do require a bit of sleuthing.

Earlier this year, a man's body was found floating in the Chicago River, identified by fingerprints but with no known relatives. He had served time in prison decades ago, so Perrone began going through visitor and call logs from 1990.

"I'm never going to find anybody; these are way old names," she recalled thinking to herself.

It turned out that the first name she came across was a woman who had several children with the man. His kids had just seen him a few days before his death and wondered why he wasn't returning calls.

Some cases are eerie.

Over the summer, Perrone spoke with a grieving widow who didn't have funds to make arrangements for her husband. She gave authorization for him to be cremated and made plans to pick up his remains. Just two days later, the wife's name came up on the daily ledger of new deaths.

"And then I go back and listen to her recording on my phone," Perrone said. "That's crazy. I just talked to her and now she's here."

Another time, an elderly woman passed away and her daughter traveled here from out of state to make arrangements. Then the daughter died unexpectedly while in Chicago, leaving her two children — one an adult and one a minor — to make arrangements for both women.

"So those poor kids were coming up here to bury or cremate their grandma, and then their mom dies too," Perrone said.

Twice Perrone has come across the names of people she happened to know growing up and had to notify their loved ones. After each of those phone calls, she wept.

The job has taught her to keep in touch with her own friends and relatives.

"Everybody is your neighbor," she said. "Your neighbor down the street that doesn't get out, or you only see him come out in the morning for the mail. Your aunt, who you may not talk to that often. Everyone is going to die at some point. You would never want to die alone yourself. ... Reach out to people."

Rest in peace

There are times when the dead have no one who can care for them.

When relatives are found but say they can't afford to make arrangements, Perrone tries to give information on various types of services that might be more affordable.

Some religious organizations bury members of their faith, and government agencies can provide burials for veterans.

In the case of the baby girl from Uptown, the mother relinquished the remains to the local nonprofit Rest in His Arms, which provides free funeral and burial services for abandoned babies.

About 50 mourners attended her interment on Wednesday, the grave site decorated with clusters of pink balloons and flowers. Rest in His Arms had also buried a second infant girl at the same time, whose body was discovered in June in a plastic garbage bag inside a shed in south suburban Dolton.

Sometimes the deceased have no living relatives or they refuse to make arrangements.

On a recent weekday, hundreds of boxes of cremated remains, marked by handwritten identification numbers, rested on shelves in the basement, waiting.

"There are a lot of people down there," Perrone said. "It really hits home that there are this many people either (whose) family couldn't take care of their disposition or ... were not willing to do it."

In 2014, the medical examiner's office began cremating indigent remains, which now costs $145 per body.

That doesn't include unidentified bodies. Those are not cremated, in case new information or technology emerges that could help with identification.

But for those whose names are known, cremation is more sanitary and dignified than keeping bodies long term, said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County's chief medical examiner.

Shifting to cremation was one of many recent reforms aimed at preventing the cooler from again becoming overcrowded. Former Chief Medical Examiner Stephen Cina was credited with transforming the once-beleaguered office, but resigned in 2016, citing the stress that came with leading that turnaround.

A new cooler with more storage room began operation in 2014, with an automated crane and barcoding system that allowed workers to keep better track of remains. An email now goes out to top staff with a daily census count of the cooler, which always has to keep enough space empty in case of an emergency or disaster.

Perrone prepares the cremated remains for burial, placing each cardboard box into a large burial shell that's divided into 20 compartments. Then she seals on the top.

"I don't think anyone else will ever see these remains," she often thinks to herself.

The burial shells are laid to rest at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery on the southwest side, and funeral services are held every few months until the ground freezes in winter. The grave site is marked with a black granite monument, unveiled in July by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

"May their souls rest in peace" is etched on one side.

Perrone said she attends every service, leaving the cemetery a list of names of the deceased in case loved ones ever come forward. The funerals often draw a crowd of mourners — county officials, medical examiner's office staff, funeral directors and clergy.

"We are the last physician who sees these patients, so it is an honor taking care of their disposition," said Arunkumar, who also attends many of the burials. "To me, it's fulfilling that we are there for them."

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

Twitter: @angie_leventis



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