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Chicago Catholic Cemeteries buries the unidentified and unclaimed

When the Cook County Morgue became overcrowded and unable to contain unidentified or unclaimed bodies in 2012, the Archdiocese of Chicago was eager to help. By donating 300 graves in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Chicago Catholic Cemeteries has been able to provide a dignified burial for 198 human bodies and 608 fetal remains.

Medical examiners attempt to find families of the deceased by using DNA databases, fingerprints, and dental records of the remains. If an identity cannot be found and a burial cannot be provided, the body must remain with the county for two years until it can be cremated. After cremation, the cremated remains of the body will be held until a burial can be provided.

Sometimes, the county can identify the deceased, but the next of kin does not agree to possession of the body. The family may not claim the body because they do not wish to provide a funeral, or they are financially unable to arrange for an honorable service. Miscarried, stillborn, or aborted fetuses of less than 20 weeks gestation are placed with unclaimed remains. These unborn children are brought to the county morgue by local area hospitals to be buried. The remains of the unclaimed are also kept with the county for two years or until a burial can be arranged.

Cardinal Francis George led prayers for the first burial in 2012, explaining, “Catholic Cemeteries have been part of this community since the beginning and we bury the dead because it's a corporal act of mercy.” He reminded us it is a corporal work of mercy and a Catholic duty to bury and pray for the dead, even the ones who seem to be forgotten. By opening our hearts to the unidentified and unclaimed members of the community, we become their family.

Local funeral directors and other volunteers have accompanied each decedent at their service. The volunteer will place a rose on the casket and stay until the burial is complete. Monsignor Patrick Pollard, the Archdiocesan Director of Cemeteries, presided at the most recent service this spring. He reminded us, as Catholics, “We say life begins at the moment of conception, whatever the span of that life is.” It does not matter the circumstance surrounding the need for a proper burial; every life is valuable, and every death should be respected.

Throughout the years, Catholic Cemeteries has maintained an ongoing commitment to lay the unidentified and unclaimed to rest; we will continue to do so as long as our services are needed. Archbishop Blasé Cupich recently attended his first burial service for the unidentified and unclaimed. Bishop Cupich was hoping to "give those who feel alone in life a sense of confidence.” He said “By this action, we have a commitment both in the Church as well as in the wider society, to not leave anybody behind." Catholic Cemeteries believes it is our duty to give peace to every decedent, and we welcome them as our brothers and sisters.

Cardinal Francis George led prayers for the first burial in 2012, explaining, “Catholic Cemeteries have been part of this community since the beginning and we bury the dead because it's a corporal act of mercy.” He reminded us it is a corporal work of mercy and a Catholic duty to bury and pray for the dead, even the ones who seem to be forgotten. By opening our hearts to the unidentified and unclaimed members of the community, we become their family.

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