Answer to morgue mess? Don't die in Cook County

If the only certainties in life are death and taxes, then a morgue is one of the few places where those two realities intersect.

Or, in the case of the Cook County morgue, collide.

The concept is simple.

Everybody dies. Some bodies need to be kept until they are identified or a cause of death is determined and the taxpayers fund that place and the process.

In Cook County though, where the execution of simple government tasks seems chronically complicated, even the dead cannot rest in peace without being dragged through a political labyrinth.

Numerous people are to blame for the shameful, uncaring, neglect that has allowed bodies to be disrespected in piles — sometimes uncovered and rotting for months. That list includes anyone who knew about the deteriorating conditions and didn't utter a word until the pictures hit the fan.

The civic-minded employees of the medical examiner's office, who gave photos of their horrid working conditions to me and triggered the current “overhaul,” should be given whistle-blower awards for helping families find misplaced loved ones and not drawn and quartered as the county president would like to see.

But in keeping with Illinois tradition, that is just what is happening. After those explicit, behind-the-scenes morgue photos showed up on ABC7, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones called in the county inspector general ... not to help sort through the health, safety and public relations fiasco ... but to hunt down the workers who took the pictures and leaked them to me!

A county spokesperson explained that taking such photos violated the policy against unauthorized pictures in the morgue and raised privacy issues. I asked “who's privacy?” but didn't get an answer.

It hasn't always been this way at the morgue. Cook County's first medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein, for whom the county's forensic institute is named, would have been mortified by such a ghoulish embarrassment.

Stein, a slightly built, eccentric man with an unusually high-pitched voice, was part TV detective like Columbo and part TV coroner like Quincy. Somehow, despite his personal peculiarities, he had a calming, grandfatherly presence during some of the area's most painful tragedies.

Dr. Stein wriggled through John Wayne Gacy's crawl space in 1978 looking for murder victims. He oversaw the aftermath of the American Airlines Flight 191 crash in 1979. He matter-of-factly broke the news to Chicagoans that Mayor Harold Washington died on Thanksgiving eve 1987 because he was overweight. And he tried to pick up the pieces of the 1993 Brown's Chicken & Pasta massacre in Palatine.

Even in the old, decrepit county morgue that Dr. Stein ran (when the annual Chicago homicide count was up to 950 per year) there was a high degree of efficiency and economy.

Stein's understudy and successor, Dr. Edmund Donoghue, also managed to deal with the worst mass death event in modern Chicago: the 1995 killer heat wave that claimed nearly 750 lives by one count.

As heat victims were brought to the morgue by the dozens that summer, Donoghue didn't stack them in piles as we have seen in recent photos. Or pile them on the floor.

He brought in refrigerated semitrailers, had them parked outside the ME's office and stored the bodies there until the crisis ended.

Why wasn't that done last week — or last year — as the morgue became overcrowded? As Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle stood under a portrait of Dr. Stein during her news conference last week, I asked that question. Ms. Preckwinkle mumbled something unresponsive but did not answer the question. However, had someone brought in portable cooling trucks long ago, there would have been no immediate crisis.

The tenures of Drs. Donoghue and Stein were not without controversy and complaints, but what public officials in Cook County can make such a claims?

In the old days over Dr. Stein's desk there was a wall hanging displaying a Latin motto. It said: “Let conversation cease, let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living.”

Although she is described as a fine doctor, you don't get that feeling from the current medical examiner who has not been seen during the crisis. Until things are fixed, perhaps the best advice would be: try not to die in Cook County.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at and followed at and

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