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Sheriff Dart details 'disturbing' indigent burial process, cemetery rep responds

The box containing 26 babies and "mixed tissues"
The box containing 26 babies and "mixed tissues"Cook Co. Sheriff's Department

Updated 3:30 p.m. with response for Sheriff Dart's office:

The owner of a local cemetery denies any wrongdoing following a press event today in which Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart released gruesome details on the indigent burial process in Cook County.

Tom Flynn, 72, the president of Homewood Memorial Gardens in south suburban Homewood, said during a phone interview he was stunned by the tone of today's press event. Dart gave details of bodies layered eight to a grave and indigent babies buried 26 to a box that also holds unidentified adult tissues and bones.

Flynn does not deny that is being done.

"We only take what the Medical Examiner's Office provides us. We pick up the box, bury it and keep a careful record of what is inside," Flynn said. "We have a minister and try to add as much dignity to this unfortunate process as possible."

Today's press conference promoted legislation Dart supports and State. Rep. William Cunningham (D-Chicago) proposed last week. The legislation would mandate that coroners and medical examiners statewide collect DNA samples from unidentified bodies slated for indigent burials.

Each body would also have to have a metal tag attached with identifying information should the body need to be exhumed as part of a criminal examination. The DNA samples could prove invaluable in missing person and cold cases.

Dart says the indigent burial practices detailed today are common practice in the cemetery industry and he did not say anything done at the Homewood cemetery is illegal. He points to a lack of oversight for the cemetery industry in general. He said the current process impedes criminal investigations.

Dart's office began looking into indigent burials following the scandal at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip in 2009. Criminal charges were filed in that case because it's alleged cemetery workers dug up buried bodies and reburied them in piles in order to resell individual plots.

Flynn, who is currently out of town, said a representative from the sheriff's department called him Tuesday and read him a press release. He said that press release was "very different" from the one issued today. He said the material released today was designed to bring "notoriety" to the Sheriff's cause. He would not say exactly what was in the alleged initial press release or who read it to him over the phone because that person asked him to keep the information confidential.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson said he has no idea what Flynn is referring to and said he himself has never spoken with or even met Flynn.

Flynn is upset with the publicity surrounding the story. He said employees at the cemetery are fielding calls from dozens of reporters and they tell him news helicopters are hovering over the cemetery.

"The damage to our reputation is incalculable," he said. "We are beautiful cemetery that is 152 years old. This is crazy."

Flynn agrees with the proposed legislation and said he has been working with the sheriff and medical examiner for at least six months on the proposal to improve the indigent burial process. He says it makes sense to have "segregated burials" and to bury bodies further apart so if a body does have to be exhumed others are not disturbed.

Homewood Memorial Gardens has had the indigent burial contract with the County for 28 of the last 30 years, Flynn said. In recent years, his cemetery has been the only one to even bid on the contract. Dart is calling for a Cook County Board hearing on the indigent burial process before another contract is awarded

Dart said the current contract calls for bodies to be buried side by side and said that is not always being done. The proposed legislation, however, would allow for stacked burials, but would limit the number of bodies in a burial column. The legislation would also prohibit the burial of multiple bodies and body parts in a single coffin.

Indigent burials are confined to a hill at the edge of Homewood. Dart said the hill has been elevated over the years to accommodate "bodies being layered as much as eight high before they decompose atop one another."

Dart's press statement said the cemetery is required to provide an exact location for all indigent burials but the cemetery has no mapping system and "the cemetery staff simply use a dead tree on the cemetery grounds to give vague descriptions of approximate locations of bodies if requested."

Flynn said his cemetery has a record of every burial and detailed mapping system.

In response to that claim, Sheriff Dart issued this statement in an email to the media this afternoon.

"Through multiple visits by sheriff's investigators, when owner Thomas Flynn was asked for a grid system for indigent burials, he said he could only provide a general map of the cemetery, with the indigent areas shaded. He said he had the names of those delivered to his cemetery by the medical examiner, but no positive way to identify their location.
He said the only indigent graves he could positively locate were those done in 1980, the only year he buried indigents in a single row. Since then, he told investigators, he has stacked the bodies atop each other, some as much as eight high."

The most recent two-year contract with Homewood Memorial Gardens is for $167,300. Dart said over the past 30 years, the County has averaged 250 indigent burials.