Reports of overcrowding and "horrendous" conditions at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office have caused Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to step in an attempt to alleviate a disturbing problem.
Preckwinkle announced Friday that she will assign senior staff to work at the county morgue daily in order to keep an eye on any overcrowding issues that may continue to arise, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Preckwinkle admitted that the morgue has had "a series of issues" over the course of the last year, including what she called "ongoing management issues," according to the Sun-Times.
ABC Chicago last week obtained graphic photo evidence of bodies -- numbering in the hundreds -- piling up unceremoniously at the Cook County morgue as the facility had exceeded its capacity. Some bodies have been left to rot for more than a year, according to concerned employees who released photos of the grisly conditions anonymously, for fear that they could lose their job.
Early last week, it was reported that about 400 adults and some 100 babies were being kept in one county cooler intended to hold less than 300 bodies. One source told the Sun-Times that "they can't keep it cool enough. The stench is like nothing I've ever seen. ... I think it's sacrilegious."
Cook County Medical Examiner Nancy Jones contends that number is not accurate and that her office is trying to reduce the backlog of bodies awaiting burial as fast as they can -- since the report emerged early last week, she told the Chicago Tribune that about 100 bodies have been buried.
"Our morgue population fluctuates every single day, and this particular incident was an anomaly that occurred because last summer the state cut public funding for indigent burials," Jones explained to the Tribune.
Last summer, the state drastically cut funding of its indigent burial program, which provides assistance to families who need financial help to provide a proper burial for their deceased loved ones. The program, funded at $12.6 million in 2011, was eliminated altogether in Democratic Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's proposed 2012 budget, but the state General Assembly chose, instead, to restore $1.9 million in funding for the program.
Because that amount did not cover the full year, many funeral directors who previously participated in the indigent burial program said they were left with no option but to let the bodies remain at the morgue as of August.
As a result of the backlog, the morgue, at one point, said it would begin automatically donating the bodies of of individuals whose families cannot afford to bury them to science, instead of burying them. After that plan, made public via a leaked memo, was criticized by some, Jones clarified that families objecting to the donation can still opt for an indigent burial instead, as the Tribune reported.
One funeral director who saw the disturbing conditions said the deceased deserve to be treated with more dignity.
"Here's the largest county's medical examiner's (office) and it's the lowest amount of dignity, he told CBS Chicago." These are still people. These are not just bodies. And to them it seems it's just bodies."
Last January, the morgue came under fire as reports emerged that bodies were being double stacked. Prior to that, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart took issue with the "appalling" way in which the office was dealing with the remains of indigent and unidentified individuals, including a report of 26 fetuses and stillborn babies being buried together in a single casket.
WATCH an ABC Chicago report on the disturbing conditions at the Cook County morgue: