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Preckwinkle promises dignified burials

Fri, Jun 22, 2012

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addresses the 27th Annual Interfaith Memorial Service for Indigent persons at First United Methodist Church/Chicago Temple.

“The changes that we’ve implemented in the Medical Examiner’s Office will mean that those come into our care will be laid to rest as quickly as possible, and with the utmost respect and dignity,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said during the 27th annual Interfaith Memorial Service for Indigent Persons May 30 at the First United Methodist Church/Chicago Temple.

“Under the leadership of Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly, her Deputy Martha Martinez and their team, we have made significant reforms within the Medical Examiner’s Office, reviewing and formalizing the policies, personnel practices and procedures to make sure the office is fully accountable to all our residents,” Preckwinkle said in her concise keynote address. “And we’ve already seen progress. We will serve all our residents, regardless of class, with dignity.”

Afterward, Kelly said “We’re hiring more doctors, autopsy technicians, investigators, a new director of intake. We’ve made changes already and there are more to be made, more new staff.”

The issue arose in January after a photo submitted to a TV station showed more than 300 bodies at the Cook County Morgue, exceeding its capacity. Kelly said the backlog of unburied bodies was the result of the state failing to pay funeral directors for picking them up.

In April, the Chicago Tribune quoted Leonard Zielinski, president of the Cook County Funeral Director’s Association, who said the state budget normally includes a line item for burial of indigent people, but that funeral directors had not been paid since June 2011.

Cook County has buried 609 indigent adults and babies in the last 12 months, generally at Homewood Memorial Gardens, said Cook County Bureau of Administration Public Information Officer Mary Paleologos. Although the graves are unmarked, the plots are numbered and GPS-tracked so that visitors can find them through the cemetery office.

Not all of the people were homeless; some died at home but their survivors may not have had the funds to bury them.

Most of the indigent people who were buried and commemorated at the service came from hospitals and their cases were well-known to officials, Kelly and Paleologos said. Those with only a last name were likely an unborn child or fetus.

Speaking the name of each person who died is the focus of the annual memorial service. Standing on each side of the altar of the Chicago Temple, readers alternated the names, which crossed all ethnicities: European, Latino, African-American, Asian. Intermittently, a bell chimed and the Rev. Dr. Philip Blackwell, senior pastor, lit one of five white candles.

Religious leaders from various faiths also provided a variety of comforting passages.

Upon hearing names of the deceased, listeners must realize “it is truly to Allah we belong and to Him we shall return,” said Muslim speaker Maham Kahn of the Interfaith Youth Corp.

Islam places greater value on life in the next world, Kahn added. “This life is simply a pit stop on the journey…full of testing.”

Jewish Cantor Jennifer Frost from B’nai Johoshua Beth Elchim read the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want….Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.”)

And representing Christianity, the Rev. Dr. Tracy Smith-Malone, district superintendent of the United Methodist Church read from Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John. “Believe in God and believe in Me. You know the place where I am going. I will not leave you an orphan.”

The main floor of the Chicago Temple was two-thirds full for the noontime service (and short repast afterward of cookies and punch). The annual event started in 1986 after W. Earl Lewis, a doorman, read about the burials of indigent people in mass graves.

“To live and die alone is a human tragedy, but not to be remembered and mourned after earthly life is an ugly blemish on human dignity,” Lewis said, according to the brochure for the interfaith service.

Lewis worked with the Chicago Temple and the Cook County Coroner’s Office to launch the first service in 1986. The idea was that the community would act as “surrogate family” to the individuals who died without survivors to claim them or to mourn them.

In 1989, Lewis himself died and was buried at Homewood Memorial Gardens, with the people he had uplifted.

Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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