Cook County posting indigent burials in ‘virtual cemetery’ | WBEZ
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Cook County posting indigent burials in 'virtual cemetery'

This year the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office became the first arm of Chicago-area government to actually list where the bodies are buried.

Starting in August the county began listing the final resting places for people buried by the county’s indigent burial program, providing the exact location of more than 400 people in the past two years. The data set contains information such as names, race, sex and dates of death and burial.

While it may seem like a very personal thing to post on a government data portal, Cook County Chief medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina said the goal of what they call the “virtual cemetery” is making sure there are as many ways as possible for families to find a loved one.

“If family does come forward six months or nine months later, maybe they lost touch with their uncle, this could be another way they could look through our logs, yes they were in Cook County, they were unclaimed, final disposition was done through the indigent program,” Cina said.

So far the portal lists 439 burials done by the county since 2012 (though there is one case duplicated in the listing).

There are some interesting demographic details in the dataset. Overall 78 percent of the burials are men, with the median age at 60. More than half of those buried were white, with around one-third African-American.

The dataset also documents a tumultuous time for the Medical Examiner’s Office.

In January 2012 reports surfaced that the county had a backlog of bodies at the morgue, which led to the retirement of then-medical examiner Dr. Nancy Jones and the appointment of Cina in July 2012.

That led to a number of changes, including an agreement between the Cook County Funeral Association and Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Cemeteries to bury indigents at Mount Olivet. This data covers those burials and others at Homewood Memorial Gardens.

Burials happen about once a month when the weather is warm, Cina said, though the number has dropped since the county passed a new ordinance allowing for cremation last year.

For Cina, though, a bigger change for the Medical Examiner’s Office has been what they’re doing before a person is buried.

Cook County posts names and other information on its website so family members can more easily find a claim a loved one. In the case of unidentified bodies, the county will post photos if possible.

“We decided shortly after I arrived here that there would be a better way to get indigents identified,” Cina said. “We don’t want to bury indigents at county expense; we’d like to reunite them with their families. We figured if we could place the indigents that didn’t have identified next of kin on the website perhaps some people would look at that locally or out of state if they lost contact with a loved one and we could get some hits on that. I believe the first year we did have three or four.”

The other big technology change for the agency is a new digital case management system, which enables more detailed tracking of information surrounding a person's death.

“Looking over data we collect, by end of the year we hope to have the GPS reporting feature of the case management feature so we could track heroin deaths by street or by zip code or by city,” Cina said. “Is there a trend in where the homicides are happening?”

There currently aren’t any plans to get that information up on the portal, though Cina said the information will eventually be part of the Medical Examiner’s annual report.

Chris Hagan is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @chrishagan.

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