The Cook County Board today unanimously approved changes to the Medical Examiner’s ordinance that for the first time would allow it the option of cremating the bodies of unclaimed and disclaimed indigents.
The ordinance's original sponsors were Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Commissioners Jeffrey Tobolski (16th) and Elizabeth Doody Gorman (17th).
The ordinance establishes the formal steps the office takes to notify next-of-kin of individuals brought to the Medical Examiner and also authorizes the office to charge storage fees for bodies brought in from hospitals and nursing homes that are not ME cases.
“These revised policies and procedures reflect our determination to bring the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office into the 21st century by employing best, and sensible, practices used by offices across the country,” Preckwinkle said. “Under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Cina, we are building a staff that is capable of meeting its responsibilities and providing the public with the service it expects and deserves.”
The ordinance authorizes the Medical Examiner’s office to investigate the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of using cremation for unclaimed or “disclaimed” bodies. Disclaimed bodies are those where the Medical Examiner has contacted the next-of-kin, but family members decline or refuse to claim the body. Unclaimed bodies are identified individuals with no known next-of-kin.
Unidentified bodies will not be subject to cremation.
The Medical Examiner will begin a Request for Proposals (RFP) process to find a vendor who can provide cremation services. In the interim, the county will continue its practice of burying indigents at either Homewood Memorial Gardens or Mt. Olivet Cemetery. The Medical Examiner will still retain the option of burying the remains of indigent individuals.
Full implementation of cremation will not begin until a policy has been established and recommendations are sought from the Medical Examiner Advisory Committee, which is composed of representatives from the clergy, community leaders, funeral directors, other county offices and law enforcement. The policy will include a checks and balances for when cremation will be employed.
Dr. Cina noted that cremation is becoming a national standard for medical examiner offices across the country – including such large metropolitan areas as Los Angeles, CA, Miami, FL, and Baltimore, MD.
Depending on results of the RFP, cremation also could be more cost efficient than burial. Typically, indigent burials cost approximately $480 per individual whereas the estimated cost per cremation is expected to be between $250 to $300. Individual urns housing the remains would be kept up to two years at the Medical Examiner’s Office and returned to the legal next of kin at the request of the family.
Also today, the board authorized the Medical Examiner to craft a memorandum of understanding with the Gift of Hope, a local organ and tissue procurement agency. After receiving family permission for donation, the Gift of Hope will work with the Medical Examiner to facilitate donations for transplant purposes. Each donor can provide organs and tissue that can improve the lives of up to 50 living patients.