It’s quiet here in the basement of the Cook County medical examiner’s office. The lights are low. The only company — the hundreds of little, white, cardboard boxes stacked here for storage, the numbers, scrawled on the end of each in black marker, the only hint of what’s contained inside.
It’s here, surrounded by these boxes filled with the cremated remains of people whose bodies families didn’t care to retrieve or couldn’t afford to or didn’t know were waiting, that Rebeca Perrone comes to seek refuge.
“It’s actually nice,” says Perrone, who is a liaison of sorts between the morgue and those whose loved ones end up in this place. “You get away from everything. I don’t think anybody knows the phone number down here.”
Upstairs, in her windowless office, on busy days, her phone rings constantly. It might be a son or a daughter frantic at the thought of Dad lying on a steel gurney in the morgue’s cooler. Or a nephew — calling from a payphone — saying he’s the next of kin but is in jail and can’t get out in time to make arrangements for his uncle’s body.
Perrone started working at the medical examiner’s office in April 2015. Her job had just been created as part of the sweeping changes made following revelations of appalling conditions at the morgue — including bodies stacked one atop another beneath tarps.
In a given week, Perrone, who’s paid $54,188 a year, is responsible for 15 to 30 bodies. Some will have died in a nursing home. Others died at home from unknown causes, so they end up at the morgue to be autopsied. She rarely deals with homicides.
The clock is always ticking. Perrone’s mission is to track down family members — and keep the cooler from overflowing. She scrolls through databases in search of a phone number that might lead to a relative. Sometimes, she writes letters. Most of the time, if she’s lucky enough to reach someone, they know why Perrone is calling.
But not always. Sometimes, she has to utter the words she hates most — her “grim reaper” speech: “Hi, this is Rebeca Perrone from the Cook County medical examiner’s office. I’m calling to let you know …”
Some gasp, some sob. Then, they want to know their options. How much does a private cremation cost? Is there anyone, some group that can help with the cost? How much time do I have to pick up the body?
Perrone is polite but firm on that last point. She tells family members they have 30 days to make arrangements to pick up the body. Otherwise, the county will cremate the body. Then, the cremains will be available for pickup — but they will have to pay $100 (cash or cashier’s check only).
She also puts people in touch with organizations that might be able to help with the cost of a private funeral.
It might sound grim. But not to Perrone. The 30-year-old, who grew up in Algonquin, found the posting for it online and couldn’t believe her luck.
“When I read through it, I’m like, this his has got to be the coolest job I’ve ever heard of,” she says in a quiet, soothing voice, the voice of someone accustomed to dealing with those who are grieving. “I want to be a detective. But I don’t necessarily want to be a cop.”
She got a close-up look at what the police sometimes have to do when she worked for Indiana’s Department of Child Protective Services, taking kids out of homes where they were abused or neglected, a job she calls “heart-wrenching.”
At 30, Perrone is single, likes to play arcade games and hasn’t had to deal with death much herself — except at work.
Still, she has a way of putting people at ease, understanding without being syrupy. And she never, ever raises her voice.
About half the bodies Perrone deals with end up getting picked up by family.
Of those the county cremates, loved ones ultimately will retrieve the remains of not even one in four of them.
Perrone brings the boxes containing the remains to a small, temporary storage room. Before it gets too crowded, they go downstairs to the basement storage. She always carries them on a cart, worried that otherwise she might drop a box.
“It’s a terrible fear,” she says.
If no one comes for the remains after a year, the boxes are slotted into a casket, with honeycomb-like compartments for each of them, and taken to Mount Olivet Cemetery on the Far South Side for burial.
Why, besides a lack of money, don’t people pick up remains? Unless someone offers that information, she doesn’t ask. She says she doesn’t need it cluttering up her brain.
“I get a lot of stories — sometimes more than I need to hear about what’s going on,” she says.
Among the cases she’s dealing with on this January day is that of an 18-year-old man whose grandmother died in November. As he was getting together the paperwork — and the money — to have the body cremated, his mother died, too. Perrone allowed the young man a rare exemption to the 30-day deadline. But now the family wants more time.
“I can’t do three weeks,” she says, speaking on the phone with a friend of the family. “Unfortunately, I can’t keep her here that long.”
The family agrees, reluctantly, to have the body cremated by the county.
A little later, Perrone is talking with a man who was in prison when his mother died in September 2016 and now is on house arrest. He wants Perrone to write a letter to his probation officer to see if he can leave home to come get his mother’s ashes from the morgue.
“He just doesn’t want to leave her here,” Perrone says after the call.
But she doubts the probation officer will go along with the request.
She’s more hopeful about case No. 04896. That’s the number written on one of the seven cardboard boxes that are stacked on a file cabinet in her office. The 62-year-old Chicago man died in November 2015 of “natural causes.”
Perrone has been trying for some time to arrange for a pickup of the cremated remains. But the dead man’s son is in jail. A cousin who already has missed one appointment to retrieve the ashes is supposed to come on this day, but he’s late.
Eventually, he shows up, and Perrone leads him to another part of the medical examiner’s office. He hands her $100 in cash. She hands him the box.
Perrone finds her work gratifying.
“I have people tell me all the time that what I did for them helped them in so many different ways,” Perrone says.
One of those is Ken Mech. His aunt died of old age at Rush University Medical Center in June 2015. It was Perrone’s job to track down relatives.
She eventually reached one of Mech’s cousins, but something wasn’t right. The cousin promised to make arrangements but never did. So Perrone called the police and asked them to do a well-being check at the Brighton Park home.
When police arrived, they found the mentally disabled cousin living in squalid conditions. Another cousin lay on the floor, emaciated. That cousin later died, Mech says. But were it not for Perrone, Mech says, he might have been arranging funerals for both cousins.
“It could have been much worse if it wasn’t for Rebeca,” says Mech, 52, who is now the surviving cousin’s legal guardian. “She probably actually saved my cousin’s life.”