Every County in the United States has the responsibility to bury their unknown and indigent dead. It is a social obligation that demands to be fulfilled. For a variety of obvious reasons human remains must be tended to by some form of burial or cremation. While every County does their best to identify anonymous remain, it is impossible to also do so. When individuals die indigent and without family, the responsibility for the disposition of their remain falls upon the local counties. In doing research for this essay, I was surprised to learn that an increasingly numbers of families are declining to claim their deceased because they have no financial means for private dispositions, thus leaving the responsibility to the local County.
Unless I either read about it in the newspapers or see some story on the television news, I am have not been very aware about indigent burials until February 17th, 2011.
On that date I learned that the County of Cook in Illinois had recently dug a mass grave at Homewood Memorial Garden Cemetery located in Homewood, Illinois. This cemetery has been contracted by Cook County to provide burial space for indigent burials. From this mass burial, we learned the following facts:
Cheap wooden boxes costing $239.00 were stacked three high per "grave."
This box contains 26 infants mixed with assorted body parts and bones.
In light of these revelations, I wish to pose the obvious question: Is this the ethical and social manner to bury the indigent? From my pastoral view the answer is a resounding NO.
On February 20th, 2011, I, along with others, paid a visit to this mass grave at Homewood Memorial Garden Cemetery to see first hand what had taken place. What we found and discovered was beyond any of our imaginations. Had we not known that we were gathered inside of a cemetery
we could have thought that we were at some landfill site. The concept of "burial with dignity and respect" seems not to apply when it comes to the burials of the indigent. Are burials with dignity and respect afforded only to those families and friends who can purchase them? It is an indictment of our social ethics and morality to permit those who ended their lives indigent to have their remains suffer further indignities. The carcasses of highway road kill are disposed of better that those of the indigent.
Throughout the years, many local community come together to provide unknown children and adults with dignified burials. This is done because
the majority of people within our national family respects the gift of life, not just at the moment of conception but also at its end. At times like this I find the silence of those who campaign for "respecting life" extremely deafening. The gift of life entails a complete circle - marked by its beginning and its end. Why should the end of a life be less respected and less valued than that of a life at its beginning?
Alternatives to Mass Burials of the Indigent
I believe that there are viable alternatives to the practice of mass burials of the indigent, alternatives which would insure that all who indigent a burial which would provide dignity and respect to the gift of live.
My first recommendation would be for cremation of the remains of those indigent or unclaimed. But prior to cremation there must be DNA record made of the individual. Coded urns could be stored in a fitting place until such time as the possibility of claims being made become impossible.
Because of the options provided with cremation, my second recommendation would be for unclaimed cremains to be interred in a simple common collumbarium or reserved in a underground ossuaries.
Given the reality of available land space, the option for cremation and fitting places for permanent internment, would be more cost efficient to the Counties in their obligation to dispose of the remains of the indigent.
The appalling manner in which the indigents from the County of Cook in Illinois were recently buried at Homewood Memorial Garden Cemetery cannot be permitted to occur again in the future.
I propose that we, as a national family, have the obligation to ensure the dignity of life to all persons and I would go one step further to say that we also have the additional obligation of ensuring dignity and respect to the dead. I further propose that we look for inspiration from the example of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, who provide Jesus with a dignified place of burial. Joseph of Arimathea is the patron saint for those in the funeral industry and his Feast is celebrated on March 17th of each year.
I wish to conclude by encouraging all, especially those who devote much time and energy to the causes associated to the Right to Life and for the Dignity of Life to address the issues related to the burial of the indigents and to work to ensure that no person should ever be denied a dignified place to rest in peace. Work to ensure that your county and state has ordinances and laws which will prevent such disrespectful mass graves from being created again in the future.