Friday, February 18, 2011

Proposed law meant to make people think about something they usually ignore

When my mother died shortly before Thanksgiving last year, my brother and I had no hesitation about deciding to cremate her remains – largely because she was ill during the last decade of her life and had thought about the issue herself.
DART: Keeping "death" alive

I lost track of the number of times she made me promise that we wouldn’t bury her somewhere. While I’m not absolutely sure she was thinking of all the horror stories we have heard in the past year or two, I know the fact that we complied with her request offers me a bit of relief.

FOR IT WAS on Thursday that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart again made an issue of some of the horror stories about the way in which the dead are disposed.

Most of the tales that occurred in the past involved cemeteries that historically catered to African-American people (originally, those were the only places where black people could be buried. Now, even though we don’t legally segregate, many black people still want to be buried near their ancestors).

But Dart, whose office has continued to investigate the way our dead are buried, used a press conference to tell some serious horror stories. It seems that the indigent are at real risk of getting their remains treated in a crass manner.

Although what happens in the event of a mis-identification, and somebody inadvertently gets labeled as indigent? It would be a heck of a mess to try to rectify that situation.

PRESS REPORTS TOLD stories of bodies stacked up as eight-high in graves, along with a coffin containing the remains of up to 26 infants, unidentified body parts being mixed together.

Then, there’s my “favorite” (heavy sarcasm intended here) of bodies being picked up by officials for an indigent burial in rented U-Haul trucks.

I laugh at the knee-jerk reaction that some people might feel about how “creepy” it is that the truck they rented to move out of an apartment or into a new home may have had some corpses in it. Perhaps some poor people were transported in a truck that later was used to move someone to a wealthy neighborhood.

If you think I’m being grotesque, keep in mind that when authorities stumble across injured people, the rule of thumb is that if there is even the remotest sign of life, they get a trip to the hospital in an ambulance.

IF IT IS clear that the person is dead, then it is the police squadrol (or for those of you who persist in being politically incorrect, the Paddy Wagon) that transports the body to the morgue.

That means a lot of indigent individuals got their next-to-last ride on this planet in a police wagon, which after years of being used to transport criminal elements who might not be so physically clean themselves, isn’t any more disgusting.

In fact, the U-Haul might very well be more respectful than a police wagon that just days earlier might have had to be hosed down because someone vomited in there while in police custody.

For his part, Dart held a press conference to tout a bill that will be introduced in the Illinois General Assembly and considered sometime this spring.

IT IS BEING sponsored by state Rep. William Cunningham, D-Chicago. But it is going to go through its political life this spring being known as the “Dart” bill. The sheriff may even make a few appearances in Springfield this spring on its behalf.

That is an effective way to reinforce the idea that Dart isn’t just a routine copper, but is actually a politico who is trying to address issues of concern to all of us. Just in case we get so offended at the actions, or the very concept, of “Mayor Rahm Emanuel” that we decide to dump him come the 2015 election cycle, the idea of “Mayor Dart” could be viable.

So that’s why we’re getting the bill that will require the medical examiner (along with the coroners in the counties less sophisticated than ours) to take DNA samples from the remains of unidentified people, then affix a metal identification tag to the body.

There also would be limits on burying more than one individual per casket, and how many bodies can be stacked in graves.

FOR THE RECORD, the answer is “yes.” This bill will wind up creating a bill. It will cost people $1 more per copy of death certificate to raise the money meant to cover any extra expenses incurred by these restrictions.

But what something like this truly does is make people think. My guess is that most people probably make that occasional trip to the cemetery to see a loved one, see the rows of graves, and think this little plot of land is where their “mother” (or whoever) will rest for the remainder of the existence of Planet Earth.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most people can’t conceive of the idea of bodies being stacked upon each other in graves – even though it is not a rare practice.

It is creepy, however.

WHICH IS WHY I’m glad my mother’s remains these days sit in a box resting on the dresser of my brother’s bedroom – with a couple of “Beanie Baby” figurines that my mother thought were cute ("Hope" and "Halo II" for the serious collectors) standing watch over her.

When we scatter them in a scenic, pastoral location later this year (possibly around what would have been her next birthday in June), I’ll be spared the fear of someday learning that her remains somehow got misplaced.


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