Fritchey: County Should Resume Indigent Burials

May 10, 2012
From a press release from Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey:
Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12th) today announced a resolution directing officials to create a strategic plan for the County to once-again resume the cemetery operations for the burial of indigent, unclaimed and unknown decedents.  From 1854 to 1971, Cook County operated, maintained and administered its own cemetery, with the most recent site, the County Cemetery for the Indigent, having been located on the land adjacent to the former Oak Forest Hospital.  Fritchey’s plan would locate the cemetery on property that is directly adjacent to the site of the former County cemetery.
Fritchey stated that the plan will allow the County to bury its least fortunate individuals with greater oversight, reverence and respect and will save county taxpayers well over $150 million dollars over the projected usefulness of the property.  The plan has already earned the support of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has said that inmates would be made available to provide labor ranging from construction of caskets to assistance with burials.
“Despite numerous efforts to inject dignity back into the process, our indigent burial program continually fails to meet the levels of reverence and oversight that reflect our societal values,” said Fritchey.  “Re-establishing a permanent County cemetery would help ensure respect in the process and assist law enforcement efforts in unsolved cases, all while saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.  For decades, Cook County handled the burial of these individuals; there is no reason for us not to resume these responsibilities, and countless reasons that we should.”
Fritchey’s proposal calls for the creation of an intergovernmental agreement between the County and the Forest Preserve District in order to place the proposed cemetery on approximately 5 acres of land immediately adjacent to, and west of, the former cemetery. Fritchey stated that the site would be sufficient to handle the County’s burial needs for over the next one hundred years.
Cook County currently pays approximately $150,000 annually to Homewood Memorial Gardens, which has been performing the burials for the County since 1980. Following legislation introduced last year by Fritchey in the wake of revelations about burial conditions, and passed by the Board, the County recently solicited new bids that impose much stricter standards and oversight over those burials. The new requirements are expected to significantly increase the annual burial cost to the County.  Fritchey maintains that by operating its own cemetery, the County could reasonably expect to save nearly $180 million dollars over the next 100 years.
Fritchey also noted that current procedures, including the inability to properly identify and locate buried individuals have hindered the ability of law enforcement agencies in unsolved cases. He cited the fact that since 1983, while 401 unidentified individuals have been buried at Homewood Memorial, only 86 have been entered into the National Crime Information Center database due to lack of proper documentation.
“It is bad enough that these individuals have died anonymous and alone,” said Commissioner Fritchey. “But the haphazard manner by which they are being buried is also preventing many of their cases from being resolved and likely allowing criminals to unjustifiably remain free.  This simply makes a bad situation worse.”
Sheriff Dart reinforced Commissioner Fritchey’s call to scrap the current system. “Since witnessing the tragedy at Burr Oak Cemetery and assessing the burial process at Homewood Memorial Gardens Cemetery I have pushed for reforms in the cemetery industry, including how we as a society bury our indigent,” said Dart.  “I knew we could do it better, this includes saving taxpayers money, allowing for law enforcement to conduct proper investigations into missing persons and unidentified deceased persons and interring them with dignity.  I am proud to support Commissioner Fritchey’s resolution calling for a strategic plan to bury the indigent, unclaimed and unknown decedents.”
Fritchey is urging his colleagues on the County Board to pass a resolution directing affected offices, including the Sheriff, the Medical Examiner, and the Forest Preserve District to develop a plan detailing the financial and operational costs associated with the transition and detailing the ways in which the affected agencies must coordinate and delegate responsibilities to establish, operate and maintain the new cemetery commencing January 1, 2013.
Commissioner Fritchey’s resolution is scheduled to be introduced at the May 14, 2012 Board meeting.