Catholic groups provide dignified burials for unclaimed bodies

It was bright and warm on June 5 in Chicago, the kind of day when people find ways to spend time outdoors.

But more than a dozen Chicago-area funeral directors, as well as Catholic Cemeteries workers, were not outside to enjoy the weather that day. They were at Mount Olivet Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side, seeing to the burial of the remains of 17 adults and 60 unborn babies whose bodies had not been claimed from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The burial included a long procession of hearses — driven by the funeral directors, who volunteered their services — and an interfaith prayer service before the plain plywood caskets were lowered into their graves. The graves and the interment were provided to the county free of charge, part of an offer of 300 graves made by Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago in early 2012.

Catholic Cemeteries made the offer after media reports showed bodies wrapped in plastics, literally stacked on top of one another at the morgue. Facing a financial crisis, the state of Illinois had stopped providing money to help pay for the burial of the indigent, and the county was unable to keep up.

A shrinking safety net

It’s a situation that has become all too common around the United States, as a struggling economy has left poor people with fewer resources and strapped the state and local governments who make up a large part of the safety net.

In 2012, Kimberly Boudreaux, executive director of the Catholic Service Centers in the Diocese of Lafayette, La., found that the body of a former resident in one of the agency’s shelters remained unclaimed in the coroner’s office two and a half years after his death.

Chicago burials
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago places a flower atop a casket at the 2012 service. Photo by Karen Callaway of Catholic New World

In Wayne County, Mich., a journalist found the body of a homeless man he had befriended in Detroit still in the morgue seven months after he died. Around the country, medical examiners and coroners have reported that more bodies are going unclaimed for burial because their families cannot afford the cost.

For Catholics, burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy — a basic duty of those who would follow Christ and treat the least of their brothers and sisters as they would treat their Lord.

That conviction was behind Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s offer of 300 graves and burials in February 2012, said Roman Szabelski, executive director of the agency.

“We really are caring for the corporeal remains of human beings,” Szabelski said. “Nobody should be sitting, waiting to grieve, for financial reasons.”

But the county did not jump at the offer, waiting weeks to respond as to whether it was interested in taking the graves.

Part of their reluctance, Szabelski said, was a fear that some people might not want to be buried — or have their loved ones buried — in a Catholic cemetery, especially if they were not Catholic. Indeed, burial in Catholic cemeteries generally is limited to Catholics and members of their families, because Catholic cemeteries are consecrated ground.

In media reports at the time, county officials also questioned whether some families who could not afford to bury their loved ones would feel left out if they did not get one of the graves at Catholic Cemeteries.

A different process

The process for burials at Catholic Cemeteries is different from that for those whom Cook County buries at a nonsectarian cemetery. The plain, plywood caskets are the same, but Cook County sends them to Homewood Gardens in a cargo truck, not individual hearses, and they are lined up side by side in long trenches, not laid to rest in individual graves like at Mount Olivet.

Indeed, if a family’s circumstances change, and they later wish to place a marker on their loved one’s grave at Mount Olivet, they are free to do so, Szabelski said.

In Lafayette, Boudreaux said, a collaboration of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Catholic Service Centers and the (civil) parish led to the April 2012 interment of the cremated remains of 95 adults in a columbarium at the cathedral cemetery. The names of those interred are inscribed on plaques on the columbarium.

“I work a lot with the homeless and the poor, with people who have become disconnected from their families,” Boudreaux said. “There is still value in their lives, and they are still made in the image and likeness of God. For me, it was just about the respect for life and honoring the dignity that we all have.”

The plan going forward is to have a burial service for unclaimed bodies every November, she said. In addition, the cemetery recently moved the remains of several unborn babies from a temporary mausoleum to a tomb that will be set aside just for them. The remains of children who die before birth, or very shortly afterward, can be entombed there for the cost of opening and closing the tomb, or free of charge if paying would be a financial hardship.

In the 2012 interment, Lafayette Bishop Michael Jarrell presided at a prayer service. In Chicago, Cardinal George has made a point of attending the interfaith prayer services and burials at Mount Olivet whenever possible.

Clearing the backlog

So far, Mount Olivet has become the final resting place of 380 people — including 123 adults and the remains of 257 unborn children, in a total of 135 graves. The unborn babies are buried in separate compartments in plain caskets, several to each grave. Catholic Cemeteries will continue the burials until the 300 graves are used up.

“The offer was really made to help them clear up the backlog,” Szabelski said.

In the burial services that have taken place so far, family members of a handful of the deceased — both adults and unborn babies — have attended the services.

For others, no family can be found. Sometimes the county cannot even provide a real name, instead recording the nicknames the deceased were known by on the street. “Sometimes it just says, ‘known as Lefty,’” Szabelski said.

An outreach program

While Mount Olivet could have accommodated the county had it asked for all 300 graves at once, splitting them up has made the logistics easier, Szabelski said.

But the graves that Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago provides to Cook County free of charge are not the only outreach the organization provides for those unable to afford burial; it also provides about 300 graves each year to Catholic families working through Catholic Charities, Szabelski told OSV.

“That’s the more usual way it happens,” he said. “Almost every diocese has some sort of outreach program.”

For example, Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of the Archdiocese of Detroit has its Mother Teresa Fund, which uses donations to pay for funeral and burial services for people who are indigent, or to help those who need financial assistance, said Robert Wilinski, a family services counselor. The help is available to people of any faith.

The Archdiocese of Detroit’s cemetery services also will provide, at no charge, the “dignified committal” of cremated remains that people might have in their homes, and be considering scattering or disposing of in some other way, Wilinski said. 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.