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Proposed state law: three caskets to one grave

An Illinois lawmaker is pushing a bill that would allow cemeteries to bury some people three to a grave. State Rep. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, is proposing a bill that would limit cemeteries to burying indigent or unidentified bodies to three caskets in one grave.

"We just thought that three was sort of reasonable," Cunningham said. "That was probably expecting too much financially and space-wise to say just one."

Cunningham said burying one casket in one grave would be ideal, but it's expensive. The measure is currently in the Rules Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives.

Cunningham is the former chief of staff for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Dart said he's disturbed by the conditions at Homewood Memorial Gardens, a cemetery in Chicago's south suburbs.

But Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin says he thinks Dart may have exaggerated about the conditions at Homewood Memorial Gardens to drum up support for legislation in Springfield.

"The sheriff was maybe a little more dramatic than maybe he needed to be to gain support for this bill. We're all in favor of the bill," Suffredin said.

Dart said Thursday the workers the cemetery have buried bodies as much as eight caskets high, one on top of another. He also said that up to 26 babies were buried together in the same box earlier this month and there are some instances in which babies were buried in the same box as animal parts or with arms and legs of other humans.

"Money is not the issue here," Dart told reporters. "What it is, is that we collectively treat these people as if they are refuse, and we can't do that."

Dart said there are virtually no records of where specific bodies are buried at the cemetery.

"It is not anything that our county or society should ever sit there and say is acceptable," Dart said.

He said Homewood Memorial Gardens is the only cemetery to have a contract with Cook County to bury indigent people.

Dart said he doesn't think he can bring criminal charges against anyone with the cemetery, but the county board should re-examine its contract with the cemetery. His office estimates 8,000 bodies have been buried at the cemetery.

Meanwhile, Homewood Memorial Gardens President Tom Flynn said the cemetery has a system for tracking bodies. He said he favors the state legislation that would limit the number of indigent bodies buried in one grave space to three caskets. Flynn said the cemetery does stack caskets, sometimes six at a time, but that's what the county pays for.

"We think that we're doing the best we can under the restrictions that we have," Flynn said.

Flynn said Homewood Memorial Gardens has been the only cemetery to bid for a contract with Cook County to bury indigent residents for the past several years. He said the cemetery has had the contract for 26 of the past 30 years.

Flynn said he has seen instances of multiple infants being buried in the same casket, but that was done before the caskets arrive at the cemetery. He said it would have to happen at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office.

In a written statement, Cook County's Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones said the cemetery is in violation of its contract. She said her office treats fetuses and stillborns with respect and does not put multiple bodies in the same coffin.

"It is our responsibility to make sure that these remains are interned," the statement said. "They are handled respectfully and placed in an adult-sized burial shell, which is sealed and placed in the grounds of the cemetery. There are no other types of remains present in the burial shell. In every other situation, remains are interned in individual burial shells.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Friday the sheriff's office and the medical examiner's office will be holding a meeting soon.

"I think that remains to be determined whether there are errors on the part of the medical examiner or whether this is something that is simply under the purview of the cemetery itself," Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle said she has been more focused on finalizing the county's budget more than the conditions at the cemetery. She said she found the accounts at the cemetery disturbing.

Dart’s investigation of Homewood Memorial Gardens comes less than two years after his office uncovered alleged mismanagement at Burr Oak Cemetery in south suburban Alsip. In 2009, Dart said his investigators found some corpses thrown in a pile at the back of the cemetery, while others were stacked into existing graves. He also said Burr Oak Cemetery employees were allegedly reselling grave sites to bury new caskets.

Dart also said one worker embezzled money intended for a museum in honor of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmet Till.

Four employees of Burr Oak Cemetery were charged with desecrating human bodies at the graveyard. They pleaded not guilty.

The company that manages Burr Oak Cemetery has been trying to sell the facility, but it’s going through bankruptcy court proceedings.

Alex Keefe contributed to this report.

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