Sheriff oversees 11 cemetery burials
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org April 14, 2012 1:42PM
Main entrance of Homewood Memorial Gardens at 600 Ridge Road. | File photo
Updated: June 14, 2012 1:51AM
The Cook County Sheriff’s office said that 11 unburied bodies discovered at a south suburban cemetery had been interred as of Saturday afternoon.
The unburied bodies were found in a storage room behind a chapel at Homewood Memorial Gardens Cemetery, said sheriff’s spokesman Frank Bilecki, adding that the bodies were in caskets and none of the caskets had been open.
Investigators were tipped off by a person who tried visiting a loved one who was supposedly buried at the cemetery, Bilecki said. The caskets had been in the room for no more than a week, he said.
Families had been notified of the discovery Friday evening and were told the burials would take place Saturday, Bilecki said. He said all of the bodies had been interred as of about 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
All the unburied bodies were public aid burials. The county contracts with Homewood Memorial Gardens for public aid burials. The cemetery is in unincorporated Cook County, between Homewood and Thornton.
While nothing criminal appears to have taken place, sheriff’s investigators said the handling of the bodies was “unprofessional,” Bilecki said. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which oversees cemeteries, was notified and representatives with the department were at the cemetery on Saturday, Bilecki said.
Sue Hofer, spokeswoman for the department, said it was too soon to say whether cemetery operators had violated any laws or regulations.
“We obviously just learned of it and will work with the sheriff’s authorities and launch an investigation into whether there was a violation,” she said Saturday.
“There are very stringent rules regarding notifying family members, making sure they understand what is going on, and we have to make sure all of those (rules) were followed,” Hofer said.
Sheriff’s police were contacted Thursday evening by a man who’d been told by Homewood Memorial employees that a loved one had been buried in the cemetery earlier in the week. The man was told the location of the grave, but when he didn’t notice any disturbed soil indicating a freshly-dug grave he started to look around.
“He saw an open door behind the chapel and peeked in” and saw the caskets, Bilecki said.
The man had included “some sort of special marking as a remembrance” on the casket and spotted it immediately among the others, Bilecki said.
Although told his loved one had been buried, the man “was essentially lied to” by cemetery employees, Bilecki said.
He said sheriff’s investigators “verified that all of the caskets were closed, and no harm had been done to the bodies.”
The manager of the cemetery told investigators that the bodies were not buried because a backhoe driver was recently fired, but that story does not add up because the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office buried 19 indigent bodies since the time the driver was laid off, Bilecki said. He said the burials of the indigent bodies took place Friday.
“Her (the manager’s) story about the backhoe driver had no credibility whatsoever,” he said.
More than a year ago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart took issue with Homewood Memorial Gardens’ handling of indigent burials after it was discovered that the bodies of indigent adults were stacked in mass graves. Thomas Flynn, the cemetery’s owner, said at the time that space limitations prevent side-by-side burials, and acknowledged that caskets are stacked as many as eight deep.
According to Dart’s office, Homewood Memorial Gardens has held the contract with Cook County for indigent burials for more than 25 years, and Flynn has said the cemetery is usually the only bidder on the contract.