Cook County morgue gets OK to cremate some bodies

Workers bury several adult indigents at Olivet Cemetery in Chicago last year. (Antonio Perez, Tribune photo)

The Cook County medical examiner will have the power to cremate bodies in some cases rather than letting them stack up in the morgue under a package of new rules commissioners approved Wednesday.

Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina has said approving cremations would bring the county in line with most big cities, allowing his department to act more quickly to deal with remains of indigents. The ordinance does not allow the county to cremate unidentified bodies.

Cina took over as medical examiner last year after county officials acknowledged that significantly more bodies were being stored at the morgue than it was designed to hold. He said the county could store many more cremated bodies for much longer, giving families additional time to collect the remains.

Cremation also is in most cases about half the $480 cost of burying an unclaimed body, Cina said.

The medical examiner said his office worked with various religious leaders in crafting the ordinance. "It shows respect for the dignity of the deceased," Cina said Wednesday. "And it will streamline our processes."

The change made it through the County Board.

"It clearly brings the county into the modern era," said Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, D-McCook. "There is no such thing as perfect in this world, but this is pretty darn close."

Cina acknowledged that some people don't agree with cremation. But he said that when the county is dealing with bodies that go unclaimed by next of kin, or cases in which survivors can't or won't pay to deal with the remains, it can be difficult to determine what they prefer.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said she could support cremation as long as the county is "respectful of the families' wishes."

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