Families Suffer Through Chicago Morgue Backlog
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.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.