PREFACE – HISTORY OF COOK COUNTY POTTER’S FIELD BURIALS
The first Potter’s Field was at City Cemetery in Lincoln Park and many of those bodies were reported to be reinterred at Cook County Cemetery at Jefferson (Dunning) in 1872. . From 1854 to 1971, Cook County operated its own cemeteries, none of which are still in use. In addition, the County sent pauper burials out to other cemeteries on contract. At Cook County Cemetery at Dunning on Chicago’s Northwest Side, 38,000 people were buried from 1854 to 1911, including victims of the Great Chicago Fire and the Civil War.
From 1911 to 1971, the Cook County Cemetery at Oak Forest Hospital saw 90,740 burials. This is the “daughter” cemetery of Cook County Cemetery at Dunning. This webpage documents this location
For a very short time, A contract sent bodies to a cemetery in Indiana
In 1971, the county contracted with a private cemetery, Archer Woods in Willow Springs, where 2,448 were buried.
In 1980, it began burials at Homewood Memorial Gardens, 600 Ridge Road in unincorporated Thornton Township. where more than 13,000 individuals have been interred and more come each month. In 1980 Homewood Gardens was paid $74 per box. Circa 2011 they charged the county $289 per body. The current contract which expires October 2014 is currently at $474 per body.
Having said that, here is the summary of Cook County Cemetery at Oak Forest:
Cook County Cemetery at Oak Forest
This is the “daughter” cemetery of Cook County Cemetery at Dunning.
(Also known as: Oak Forest Cemetery, Cook County Potters Field)
Location: 159th and Crawford on Grounds of Oak Forest Hospital
Oak Forest, Cook County, Illinois 60452
Section: 22 Township 36 Range: 13
Latitude/Longitude: 41°57'19.8"N 87°47'28.6"W
Cemetery records at: Oak Forest Hospital Medical Records Office
There are two books of burial records. Additionally, there microfilmed copies of five books at South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society. The location of the five books are in question.
Cook County Cemetery at Oak Forest is in the northeast corner of the Oak Forest Hospital grounds. This cemetery was used between about 1912 and 1971 to receive the indigent from the City of Chicago replacing Cook County Cemetery - Old Grounds and Cook County Cemetery and New Grounds at Dunning (both within Jefferson Park Township). This cemetery site was chosen because at the time, the site was considered to have had adequate space for future needs. Its use as an institutional infirmary cemetery was secondary to its role as a county potters field. In fact, indigent burials from Oak Forest Hospital amounted only to one or two per year.
Over the years the cemetery was a victim of negligence. Reports of problems were made as early as December 3, 1923 when the Annual Report of the Cook County Infirmary was released. Anton J. Cermak, who would later become Chicago's mayor was the President of the County Board at the time. The report stated "The rough unkempt tract of ground set aside for the burial of our deceased dependents is sadly at variance with other departments of our county's progressiveness. This unsightly and barren area would be more in harmony with the rest of our Institutional premises if converted into a well kept and attractive park with the adornments of trees, shrubbery, flowers, and intersected with convenient walks and driveways." Unfortunately, this never came to pass, existing only in the flowery language of the report.
In the Summer of 1958, the superintendent launched a massive renovation project building a new twenty-five acre cemetery next to the old potter's field. It was designed to contain twelve thousand separate graves, each with its own concrete headstone. This was a great improvement contrasted to the old method of digging eight foot trenches with a wooden slab bearing an identification number. During this renovation, archeological research produced the mapping of an entire Indian village that was formerly on the site. Despite this important discovery, no Indian burial ground was found. The cemetery filled up quickly. In 1970, Cook County Cemetery, lacking additional space, closed permanently. Access is now restricted and permission must be obtained to visit the cemetery. Some 90,000 burials are known to have been made here.
The cemetery was re-dedicated on October 11, 1990, with a new entrance at 159th street and Crawford (Pulaski in Chicago).
Upon the closing of Cook County Cemetery at Oak Forest, the county began sub-contracting pauper burials to Archer Woods Cemetery, now (Mt. Glenwood Memory Gardens West). In 1981, the contract was awarded to Homewood Gardens. An excellent set of ledger books covering virtually all burials in the cemetery are, as of this writing, stored in the basement of the Oak Forest Hospital. They are under the supervision of the Medical Records Department. Records for more recent indigent burials can be requested through the offices of the Cook County Medical Examiners Office.
May 10, 2012 Chicago Sun Times
County Commisioner’s plan: Bury indigent at Oak Forest Hospital site
A five-acre site at the former Oak Forest Hospital in the south suburbs should be set aside for a county cemetery for indigent burials, according to a plan proposed Thursday by Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-Chicago).
By resuming its own cemetery operations, the county could save $180 million and meet its needs for the next 100 years, Fritchey estimated.
He said he’ll ask the county board to direct the sheriff, medical examiner and forest preserve district to develop a plan to open a new cemetery by January, said Bridget Luehrsen, Fritchey’s spokeswoman.
The new cemetery would be immediately west of a former county cemetery, where nearly 91,000 bodies were buried from 1911 to 1971. The land at the southeast corner of 159th Street and Cicero Avenue is owned and would continue to be owned by the forest preserve district, Luehrsen said.
Fritchey’s plan would allow the county to bury its indigent, unclaimed and unknown bodies with “greater oversight, reverence and respect,” Fritchey said.
His plan will be introduced at Monday’s county board meeting, Luehrsen said.
After witnessing problems pertaining to haphazard burials at Burr Oak Cemetery and seeing the burials at Homewood Memorial Gardens, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart pushed for reforms. He has endorsed Fritchey’s plan and proposed that county jail inmates make the caskets and assist with burials.
The county now pays $150,000 yearly to Homewood Memorial Gardens, which has been handling burials for the county since 1980.
But new burial standards, approved by the county a year ago, are expected to increase those costs significantly, Luehrsen said.
Bodies were being stacked eight high in a man-made hill, and people were being placed in coffins with unidentified limbs and non-human debris, sheriff’s investigations revealed.
Fritchey said the current process does not properly identify these individuals.
Since 1983, 401 unidentified bodies were buried at Homewood Memorial Gardens, but data on only 86 has been entered into the National Crime Information Center database due to a lack of proper documentation, he said. This hinders police in solving crimes, he said.
The new standards require separate burial areas for unknown persons, babies and fetuses; visible markers; maintaining records that include names when known, gender, race and identifying characteristics of the dead; date and location of burial; and entering that data in the Cemetery Oversight Database within 10 days. It prohibits multiple bodies in one grave space unless they are in containers with no more than three coffins in one grave.
NOTE: It appears that a new contract with Homewood Gardens was approved on October 2 2012 which would indicate that the above plan did not happen. Burials continue at Homewood Gardens at this writing. The cost per year to the county is going up dramatically.