Chicago’s death disparity
On the heels of the Cook County morgue scandal, Jake Malooley investigates four very different postmortem stories.
The lost souls
As snow begins to accumulate on the mass grave dug in a corner of Homewood Memorial Gardens, a rented U-Haul truck arrives carrying the grisly cargo. Tom Flynn Jr., 42, whose father owns the south suburban cemetery, hops out of the vehicle’s cab and throws open its roll-up rear door, revealing stacks of plywood caskets from the Cook County morgue. With gloved hands, Worsham College of Mortuary Science students earning extra credit lift the 25 identical coffins into the long, muddy trench.
Inside the cheap-looking boxes are the remains of 22 adults and as many as 72 babies and fetuses, up to two dozen of which Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office personnel are allowed to pack together in the same casket. Some of the bodies are unidentified indigents. Some have been ID’d but are unclaimed. Others died without assets, and surviving family members couldn’t or didn’t cough up the money for a proper burial.
Off to the side stands a hooded figure clad in black, a cigarette in one hand, a shovel in the other. The gravedigger extends a large, chapped paw to introduce himself: “Boogie.”
“As in Boogie Man?” I ask.
For the better part of 30 years, Homewood Memorial Gardens has held the contract to perform the county’s pauper burials, partially because no other cemetery bids. “These are people, too, and they deserve some kind of burial,” Flynn says. Annually, the cemetery inters about 200 indigent people on its ten acres. But today, Flynn notices something disturbingly different in the air: the overpowering odor of rotting flesh. “The smell of death,” he says. “A lot of these bodies have been at the morgue for a few months, so they’re decomposing.”
The scent could’ve been expected; this indigent burial, held February 10, is the first following the news that broke in January of an alarming backlog of bodies at the morgue. In the 2012 budget, beginning last July, Springfield slashed funding for public-aid burials to $1.9 million, down from $12.6 million in 2011. The meager reserve was spent by August 15. By the time the state decided in November to add $8 million, the morgue’s coolers were already over capacity. Now under the close watch of reform-minded Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the Medical Examiner’s Office has ramped up burials.
While the volunteer pallbearers continue to place the coffins, Homewood administrator Kelly McCarthy ambles over, peering at the register of those slated for burial. She remarks on the unique names of a set of twin babies, Rain and Storm.
Farther down the list of overdue burials is Raymond Hudgens. On October 8, the 59-year-old suffered a heart attack and died in the West Englewood home he shared with his brother, Lorenzo. Today, after four months at the morgue, he will finally rest in peace. But Raymond’s family will not be here to say a final good-bye.
“Raymond was mentally challenged,” his sister Peggy Hudgens-Wilkins says over the phone a couple of weeks after the burial. “You’d have to instruct him to take a bath and do all those things.”
Raymond was receiving about $2,000 a month in government assistance, says Hudgens-Wilkins, a 51-year-old professional caretaker. A memorial was held, and Hudgens-Wilkins was under the impression that Raymond’s remains had already been cremated. But she says a family member, who had been Raymond’s state payee for two years, secretly decided to let the county handle the remains and keep the money that would’ve gone toward a burial. It wasn’t until a letter from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office arrived on Lorenzo’s doorstep that she realized Raymond’s body was still sitting at the morgue.
Without the means to fund Raymond’s postmortem expenses, Hudgens-Wilkins resigned herself to the idea that her brother would be given a pauper’s burial. She had one simple wish: to be there. For months, she says she called the morgue asking when the interment would take place and didn’t receive a straight answer.
When the news of the morgue pileup broke, Hudgens-Wilkins saw the horrifying photos on TV: stacks of bodies wrapped in blue plastic. “I couldn’t rest at night,” she says. “I could only imagine the worst—that my brother was rotting. My brother’s remains were treated like garbage. No one has a right to be treated that way.”
Hudgens-Wilkins says despite many calls, the medical examiner didn’t respond about the date of her brother’s burial until after they put him in the ground. “They’re making people feel we don’t have anything to do with our loved ones because we can’t pay for the burial,” she says. (“[Hudgens-Wilkins] had been called more than once and told the date and time” in advance of the burial, Cook County Board President’s office spokeswoman Liane Jackson says.“There’s no policy that prevents families from attending [the Homewood Memorial Gardens burials] and there’s no attempts ever to dissuade families from attending.”)
As veteran Worsham professor Timothy Kowalski, a certified celebrant, begins the memorial over the line of coffins, it becomes painfully clear no family members will attend this burial. The rumbling backhoe that dug the grave fires up. With each load of dirt dumped onto the coffins, the low-grade wood splinters and caves in—one final earthly insult.
With melting snow dripping off his nose, ruddy from the cold, Kowalski finishes the service. He reads a prayer by English priest and poet John Donne: “There shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.” The hope is that an equitable afterlife awaits.