Sheriff Tom Dart wants a new law that requires DNA samples to be taken from unidentified bodies before they are laid to rest in what he describes as a "disturbing" mass burial mound in which bodies are layered on top of each other where they decompose.
Earlier this month, according to Dart, bones and limbs recovered by police were buried along with 26 babies in a wooden box identified only as "medical tissues" at Homewood Memorial Gardens, 600 Ridge Road.
While investigating the case of a discarded newborn who died at birth in 2003, the Cook County sheriff's department learned that dead babies, medical waste and assorted bones would be collected and stacked on top of the remains of the indigent in the Homewood burial mound.
Dart said this is a common yet little known practice in the cemetery industry.
In that case, investigators took a DNA sample before the burial so they could continue the search for a match to a parent should the parents' DNA emerge in any national databases in the future.
At a press conference Thursday, Dart said he wants DNA harvesting to become a standard law enforcement practice because current cemetery practices could hinder criminal investigations.
The sheriff's department explained its point of view in a statement issued Thursday morning:
Dart’s concerns center on indigent burials. Paid by taxpayers, hundreds of these burials are done every year at a private cemetery, where an elevated hill has been created as a result of bodies being layered as much as eight high before they decompose atop one another. Also raising concerns is that after unidentified limbs and bones are recovered by police, they are analyzed by a medical examiner, then placed inside wooden coffins along with babies whose parents couldn’t afford a proper burial. ...
These and other burial practices came to light in the wake of a sheriff’s 2009 investigation at historic Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, where the cemetery’s manager and three employees were arrested for their roles in a years-long scheme to unearth hundreds of interred bodies, dump the remains, then collect cash to bury someone new in that plot.
In November 2010, the sheriff's department solved the case of a south suburban man who'd gone missing in 2004 - Glen Serratt, 49, of Justice. Serratt's body was to be buried as an unknown indigent at Homewood Memorial Gardens, according to the sheriff. Investigators stopped his burial for a DNA match. Using DNA, they found his family.
Dart said the DNA sampling is an extra step taken by his investigators, and he wants to see it become common practice.
The statement continues:
HB1457, introduced last week, requires all coroners or medical examiners to obtain a DNA sample for those unidentified at the time of burial, then affixing a metal identification tag to the body. There are about 12 unidentified people buried in Cook County every year. Taking a DNA sample from those 12 could also prove useful to the National Crime Information Center, which lists more than 100,000 people as missing. The bill calls for a $1 fee to be added for copies of death certificates to cover any incurred expenses.
Dart called on Cook County Commissioners to conduct a hearing on the issue before signing a 2011 contract for indigent burials. Homewood Memorial Gardens has held that contract since 1980 and most recently served as the only bidder for the 2009-10 contract. That 2-year deal called for the cemetery to be paid $167,300 to handle all indigent burials - with the county billed per casket. Over 30 years, the county has averaged 250 indigent burials a year, though it dropped to just 137 last year.
Though the county contract requires the cemetery to provide an exact location of all indigent burials, investigators learned there is no mapping system and cemetery staff simply use a dead tree on the cemetery grounds to give vague descriptions of approximate locations of bodies if requested.
The indigent burial process begins when bodies are picked up by Homewood staff in a rented U-Haul truck, then unloaded for burial in the designated corner of the cemetery. There is no county representative on site and though the current contract says bodies are only to be buried side-by-side, Dart witnessed the indigent burial process on Feb. 1 and learned that is not being followed. Cunningham’s legislation would also limit how many bodies can be stacked atop each other, while it also prohibits the burial of multiple people in one casket.