Losing a loved one in any circumstance can be a painful experience, but for some families in Chicago, that pain is being compounded by what's been happening at the Cook County morgue in recent weeks. In the words of one observer, it's "a moral travesty."
The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office was so far behind in burials for the poor that bodies have been stacking up. Conditions at the overcrowded morgue have been described as inhumane and unsanitary, and there are reports that the department has lost track of bodies. Following efforts to change its practices, the morgue is now trying to catch up and clean up.
Standing outside the Medical Examiner's Office, Peggy Hudgens-Wilkins is visibly distraught. Her brother, Raymond Hudgens, died of a heart attack on Oct. 8. He was 59. Four months later, Hudgens-Wilkins says, "My brother is still here as we speak at the Cook County morgue."
Hudgens was mentally disabled and, according to Hudgens-Wilkins, the family member overseeing his affairs apparently ran off with the money set aside for his funeral. Now his body sits at the morgue awaiting an indigent burial.
The county won't tell Hudgens-Wilkins when Hudgens might be laid to rest, nor has she been allowed to view his body. From what she's been told and what she's seen in media reports, Hudgens-Wilkins says the conditions inside the morgue where her brother's body awaits burial are shocking.
"You had decomposition all over the floor," she says. "You had body parts sticking out. It was not a sound situation by [any] means, and no one should be treated in this regard."
In January, a whistle-blower who works inside the morgue took graphic photographs of the grisly scene to the media. The images showed bodies wrapped in blue tarps stacked on top of one another along a wall, with blood and other fluids pooling on the floor.
Cook County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Nancy Jones, is no longer giving interviews, but she did initially acknowledge that there was a backlog of indigent burials, and she blamed state budget cuts that eliminated funding for the program last summer.
Illinois lawmakers have since restored the funding, but the backlog remains. When Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stepped in last week to overhaul morgue operations, her staff found 363 bodies awaiting burial in the morgue's cooler, which was designed to hold no more than 300.
A Family's 'Unimaginable Pain'
The morgue's indigent burial backlog has also exposed other problems. Sheila Hostetler is one of 12 siblings in a tight-knit family. Her 54-year-old brother, Brian Warren, died Dec. 29. Another sister had just dropped Warren off at his Chicago home after church and driven away when Warren suffered a massive heart attack on the street. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The hospital sent him to the morgue, along with his wallet, which contained his ID, and his cellphone.
But Hostetler says, at the time, she and her siblings had no idea what had happened to him — only that he was missing.
"Collectively, as a family, we were looking for him," she says. "We did all kinds of canvassing. We called the police station. We called hospitals. We called the morgue numerous times looking for him, and the times when we were calling, the morgue said they didn't have him."
For more than two weeks, Warren's family thought he might still be alive when, in fact, he was at the morgue the entire time.
"You always have a hope when you call the morgue," says Bernice Terry, another of Warren's sisters. "When we found out that he was there, and the length of time he was there, I think that was the most hurtful part. Going through that, the stress and the hurt, even today, it [doesn't] go away."
Warren's family finally found the hospital he had been taken to, which told them Warren's body was taken to the morgue. But the morgue still insisted he wasn't there. It wasn't until the hospital provided a case number that the morgue finally found the body, allowing Warren's family to have his funeral.
"It's an unimaginable pain, what these families have gone through," says the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of Chicago's New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. "The shape that the county morgue is — or was — in, a millionaire could have fallen dead, been taken to a hospital with ID, and ended up on the morgue floor, unaccounted for and unidentified. And the people, they need to be held responsible and accountable."
Hatch is part of a group of Chicago-area ministers advocating for families affected by the problems at the morgue, which he describes as "overwhelmed, overcrowded and dysfunctional." The ministers met Wednesday with the county's top elected official, Preckwinkle. Last week, Preckwinkle announced sweeping policy and procedural changes at the Medical Examiner's Office.
Preckwinkle says she's "disturbed, discouraged and disappointed" by conditions in the Medical Examiner's Office. She says her office had been reviewing the management and operations there long before the morgue's problems got media attention.
Getting In The Way Of Law Enforcement
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also says the management problems at the morgue are nothing new. More than a year ago, he found conditions at the cemetery the county uses to bury the indigent, unclaimed and unidentified to be "atrocious" and "a disgrace."
"The way we were burying individuals was ... callous, reckless, unprofessional. I don't know how else to put it," he says. "Literally, a large hole was dug at different times, and people's bodies were virtually dumped into it. There's no markings; there's no ability to find any body."
Dart says those conditions made it nearly impossible for his investigators to reopen cold cases, to try to find missing persons or to even try to identify some of the unknown victims of 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
"From a law enforcement standpoint, we cringe because our ability to find things is beyond compromised. You can't find anything out there," Dart says. "But then from the human side of it, you know, these were real people, and to think that this is how this county looks at them — that we really don't treat them much differently than how we dispose of waste — this is horrible."
An ordinance changing the way the Medical Examiner's Office buries the indigent and the unidentified was enacted last summer, and Dart says burials are now done properly. The Medical Examiner's Office is also now catching up on its backlog with two recent mass burials. Officials say conditions at the morgue are improving every day.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Unsanitary and inhumane, those words have been used to describe the scene inside the Cook County morgue in Chicago. Until this week, the medical examiner's office was so far behind in burying the indigent and destitute, the bodies had actually been stacked on top of each other. NPR's David Schaper has our story from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Standing outside of the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, Peggy Hudgens-Wilkins is distraught.
PEGGY HUDGENS-WILKINS: My brother passed away October the 8th.
SCHAPER: Raymond Hudgens died of a heart attack at the age of 59.
HUDGENS-WILKINS: My brother is still here, as we speak, at the Cook County morgue.
SCHAPER: Four months after he died, the body awaits indigent burial. Hudgens-Wilkins says the family cannot afford a funeral, but the county won't tell her when Raymond might be laid to rest, nor has she been allowed to view his body.
And conditions inside of the morgue were shocking. A whistleblower took photographs of the grisly scene to the media. They showed bodies wrapped in blue tarps stacked on top of one another along the wall and blood and other fluids pooling on the floor.
The chief medical examiner has acknowledged a backlog of indigent burials and she blames state budget cuts that eliminated funding for the program last summer, but Illinois lawmakers have since restored the funding. And one official says, as of last week, 363 bodies were still in the morgue's cooler designed to hold 300.
And the backlog isn't the only problem.
SHEILA HOSTETLER: Our situation is that our brother - he passed away December 29th.
SCHAPER: Sheila Hostetler is talking about 54 year old Brian Warren, one of 12 siblings in a tight knit family. Another sister had just dropped him off at his Chicago home after church that night and driven away when Brian suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to a hospital and pronounced dead, then sent to the morgue along with his ID and his cellphone.
But Hostetler says, at the time, she and her siblings had no idea what had happened to Brian, only that he was missing.
HOSTETLER: And we did all kind of canvassing. We called the police station. We called hospitals. We called the morgue numerous times looking for him and the times when we were calling, the morgue said they didn't have him.
SCHAPER: For more than two weeks, Brian Warren's family thought he still might be alive when he was really at the morgue the entire time. Even when the family found the hospital which sent him to the morgue, the morgue still said he wasn't there. It took days for the morgue to finally locate the body so Warren's family could have his funeral.
REVEREND MARSHALL HATCH: It's an unimaginable pain, what these families have gone through.
SCHAPER: Reverend Marshall Hatch is pastor of Chicago's New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.
HATCH: And the people - I mean, they need to be held responsible and accountable.
SCHAPER: Hatch is part of a group of Chicago ministers who met yesterday with Cook County Board president Tony Preckwinkle. Last week, Preckwinkle announced sweeping changes at the medical examiner's office, but Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says management problems extend beyond the morgue.
Last year, he found conditions at the cemetery, where the indigent and unidentified are buried, to be a disgrace.
SHERIFF TOM DART: Literally, a large hole was dug at different times and people's bodies were virtually dumped into it. There was no markings. There was no ability to find anybody.
SCHAPER: Dart says that made it nearly impossible for his investigators to reopen cold cases.
DART: From a law enforcement standpoint, we cringe because our ability to find things is beyond compromise. You can't find anything out there. But then, from the human side of it, you know, these were real people. And to think that this is how this county looks at them, that we really don't treat them much differently than how we dispose of waste, this is horrible.
SCHAPER: The medical examiner's officer has since changed burial procedures and Sheriff Dart says they're now done properly and the medical examiner's office is now close to catching up on its backlog. With two recent mass burials, officials say the morgue is no longer over capacity.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.