By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago religious leaders are demanding an end to overcrowding at the Cook County morgue, where bodies of the poor piled up because of cutbacks in state funding for indigent burials.
The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office recently held about 363 bodies, or 63 more than capacity, officials say, an overcrowding that was on display in a photograph leaked to Chicago media showing bodies stacked on top of each other.
"We tried to sound the alarm eight or nine months ago -- once funding was cut for the indigent, it was predictable the morgue would be overwhelmed," said Marshall Hatch, pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago and co-chair of a clergy organization.
Some two dozen church leaders want to talk with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle about establishing a task force to resolve the problem and prevent it from repeating, Hatch said on Monday.
"The shameful irony is, once we determined in our state budget to neglect the indigent deceased, the ensuing chaos of backlogged human remains left all citizens and families potential victims of an overwhelmed system and unintentional neglect," Hatch and other clergy members wrote in a letter to Preckwinkle.
Board officials are scheduling a meeting with clergy members for this week, Preckwinkle spokeswoman Liane Jackson said.
Cuts to state funding to public aid recipients to pay for family member burials have been a "major contributing factor" to capacity problems at the morgue, Jackson said.
Making matters worse, funeral homes, families, the U.S. Veteran's Administration and other agencies sometimes request remains be held for extended periods, Preckwinkle's office said.
Preckwinkle is reviewing procedures and policies at the medical examiner's office, and changes would include imposing a time limit on the storage of bodies, according to Preckwinkle's office. Expedited burials are planned for the near future, with the first taking place February 10.
The Illinois Department of Labor is investigating worker safety issues at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office, a spokesman for the department said.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta)