On a dusty shelf in a back corner of what used to be Kane County's print shop sits 47 packages each about the size of a coffee can. Below them are boxes of printer toner. Across from them are boxes of Kane County Coroner's Office inquest files. About 25 feet away, a picture of a red-eyed skeleton on a box of Halloween decorations marked "Reaper of Souls" stares at the packages.
Inside the brown or white boxes are the ashes of local residents. Some of them date back as far as the 1950s. Others are much more recent. The white boxes are notably smaller and lighter. They contain the cremated remains of babies.
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As Coroner Rob Russell looks at the packages, he can't help but shake his head.
"I can't believe there are human remains resting next to these files," Russell said. "That's pretty weird, and I'm a coroner."
Russell says he feels a moral obligation to find a better final resting place for the ashes. Ideally, that resting place would be selected by the next of kin for each of the people currently on the shelf. But that doesn't always happen. The office has long sought next of kin for all 47 of the cremated remains. Some can't be found. Other people just don't want to claim the ashes.
"There are a lot of people freaked out about what they consider to be a dead body being in their house," Deputy Coroner Loren Carrera said. "With the babies, there are some moms who don't want to accept the fact that they were ever pregnant."
Three of the containers took a bizarre path through a Goodwill store in South Elgin before winding up at the coroner's office. Russell said Goodwill workers came across the canisters while emptying a box that had been donated to them following the sale of a local home. One of the containers of ashes is an old metal flour box. Another has no identification of the remains inside the container. Even if it did, that's no guarantee of getting the ashes back into the hands of family members, Russell said.
There are no laws requiring family members to claim the remains, Russell said. There is also no pool of funds to pay for a burial, nor is there any policy in place that says where and how to bury the ashes. Russell hopes the county board helps create at least a set of policies at the local level for how to deal with the so-called cremains for the future. But the immediate problem is still the ashes Russell already has.
"This is something that needs to be done," Russell said. "I care about life, and I care about people. This is something respectful we should do. I can honor these people by giving them a respectful burial."
Russell is open to ideas for how to achieve that, but he has a plan of his own.
There is a cemetery on the grounds of the old Kane County jail. It dates back to a farm created in 1852 as a refuge for the poor, senior citizens and the mentally ill. The last recorded burial at the site was in 1953. Weather and time have covered many of the burial sites, but officials believe there may be nearly 700 people buried there. Russell said he has no idea why the cemetery is no longer used, but he hopes it could be a home for cremains if the county board agrees.
There is also the issue of how to bury the ashes. They can't be put in the ground in the current cardboard and plastic boxes they sit in. Typically, cremains at a cemetery are placed in a small vault in the ground. But that's a costly proposition. Russell has another idea.
Inside a freezer at the back of his office is an old, metal coffin that appears gray under the fluorescent light. It's been at the coroner's office longer than any current employee. No one knows how it got there or why. But it is empty, clean and available for use. Plus, it's free, Russell said. All 47 boxes of cremains would fit in the single casket. They would be buried together in the cemetery by the old jail after a blessing by local clergy.
"All we'd really need is some man hours and some equipment that we already have," Russell said.
Russell said he'll take his plan to the county board and keep coming back every month until there is some resolution. In the long term, he'd like a better storage facility, or a new building for the coroner's office, to properly store not just cremains but also bodies kept temporarily while death investigations are conducted.
Space is at a premium in the coroner's office. Deceased former coroner Chuck West, just before he was indicted, pointed to a lack of storage space as a reason he allowed one of his employees to take home a television from a death scene for storage purposes.
"I want to restore integrity to the office," Russell said. "There are several steps needed to do that. Getting these cremains properly interred is one that is within our immediate reach."