The county’s unclaimed dead receive ‘dignity in death’ in archdiocese’s donated graves

Some of the babies were hoped for — wished for, even.

But no matter what awaited them in the world outside their mother’s womb, they died before they could be born.

A Catholic burial service Thursday for 63 unclaimed fetuses at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery drew just a handful of mourners.

Yolanda Gamboa of Oak Lawn heard about the burial on Catholic talk radio and decided to attend. She dealt with her own miscarriage 26 years ago.

“It touched my heart,” she said. She wanted to be “one more prayer for their souls.”

Gamboa came with a co-worker, who brought a wreath bearing a tiny angel.

The event was the latest burial of unclaimed bodies from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office at Mount Olivet on plots donated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

The archdiocese donated 300 graves, all at Mount Olivet, to the county in 2012, said Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries for the archdiocese.

<small><strong>Cook County Commissioner John Daley listens as Monsignor Patrick Pollard leads a burial service for unclaimed fetuses at the Mount Catholic Olivet Cemetery on Thursday, April 16, 2015. | Brian Jackson/For The Sun-Times</strong></small>

Cook County Commissioner John Daley listens as Monsignor Patrick Pollard leads a burial service for unclaimed fetuses at the Mount Catholic Olivet Cemetery on Thursday, April 16, 2015. | Brian Jackson/For The Sun-Times

Since then, 608 unclaimed fetuses and 198 unclaimed, unidentified or “disclaimed” bodies have been buried there, Szabelski said. Disclaimed bodies have been identified and next of kin has been notified, but the family chose not to take possession of the body.

“People deserve dignity in death,” Szabelski said.

Cook County Commissioner John Daley attended the burial as a representative of the county board.

“If it wasn’t for the archdiocese, this wouldn’t happen,” Daley said.

Funeral director Roland Weis of the Cook County Funeral Directors Association witnessed the burial in accordance with state law, Weis said. His group paid for the transportation of the three plywood boxes containing the remains and provided their services free of charge.

Seventy-five graves from the archdiocese’s donation remained after the funeral Thursday.

There are questions about space for future county burials after the Mount Olivet graves are filled, ahead of an all but certain uptick in disclaimed bodies. In April, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced the state Department of Human Services will no longer reimburse funeral homes that handled burials for public aid recipients.

Without help to pay for burials from the state, more people may disclaim the bodies of their relatives. They will then become the responsibility of the county medical examiner’s office, according to Frank Shuftan, the county’s public information officer.

Unborn children, like those at the service Thursday, are brought to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office by area hospitals, according to Shuftan.

Fetal remains and unknowns are left intact for burial, but a county ordinance now allows for disclaimed and unclaimed bodies to be cremated, Shuftan said. The county began cremating bodies a year ago, and they must be stored for two years.

After two years, the ashes of the disclaimed and unclaimed still need to be buried, and it’s not clear where they will go after the archdiocese’s donation ends.

The county is only doing burials at Mount Olivet, Shuftan said.

“We are assessing our options on future burials,” he said.

“There are currently conversations going on with the county about the future possibilities of being of assistance for professional and respectful burial services,” said a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

Monsignor Patrick Pollard, director of the archdiocese’s Catholic cemeteries, presided over the brief prayer service. The mourners placed white tea roses on the coffins before cemetery workers lowered them into the graves.

“Whether it was a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or however, it could have been an abortion, we told the medical examiner’s office we could always accept them,” Pollard said before the service began.

“It’s part of our stance as Catholics,” he said. “We say life begins as the moment of conception, whatever the span of that life is.”

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