The tip that led to an exclusive by Chicago reporter Sara Burnett came from a caller with a claim that seemed outlandish: A western Illinois coroner was having poor people who can't afford to bury their loved ones sign over their rights to the deceased to him, leaving them without the death certificate. He then cremated the body and kept the ashes until the family paid $1,000. He’s continued the policy even though the state has resumed a program to pay for the funerals.
Burnett’s pursuit of the story exposed a practice that was causing controversy in a small Illinois county and illustrated how the state’s budget crisis continues to cause pain nearly a year after a two-year stalemate between the governor and the legislature ended.
After getting details via email, Burnett interviewed a former photo editor at the Quincy newspaper who learned about the coroner’s practice while shooting photos for a documentary about poverty in Quincy. He put Burnett in touch with a woman who detailed her experience when her ex-husband and father of their three children died. They were both on disability and she couldn’t come up with the money, leaving the family to hold a memorial service at a Quincy church with just a photograph and an empty container. Wendy Smith told Burnett she eventually raised the money through donations, but felt the policy was unfair. "I just think they pick on the people that are poor."
Adams County Coroner James Keller was initially reluctant to talk to Burnett but also wanted to explain why he was doing this: The policy started after the state, which for years has faced billion-dollar deficits and unpaid bills, announced it was too broke to pay for indigent funerals and burials – shifting the cost to funeral homes and county coroners. The staff at a funeral home originally told Burnett they’d only talk off the record, but the boss got on the phone and eventually agreed to go on the record to defend the coroner.
Burnett tracked down other families. This was key, as the coroner claimed only the one woman was unhappy. Burnett also had back-and-forth with the state about how much money was appropriated for the burial program, and the backlog. She determined the state program is up and running again – but also that many funeral homes apparently have given up on it.
The coroner claimed only one woman was unhappy with the practice. Burnett tracked down other families.
Through reporting, Burnett learned that Illinois wasn’t alone. More than a dozen states provide money to cover such costs, though several – from Indiana to West Virginia – said their funds haven't been enough to meet demand.
The story got widespread play online, including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, as well as front pages in Peoria, Carbondale and the Quad Cities in Illinois, and across the border at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Burnett has fielded calls from readers who want to help the group that is trying to end the policy and/or pursue legal action.
By Tuesday, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, citing The Associated Press story, weighed in that the coroner's practice was "disgusting behavior" and called for a ramped-up campaign to alert local officials that state-funded burial is again available.
For illuminating a questionable practice and how the state’s budget crisis continues to cause pain for the poor and vulnerable, Burnett earns this week’s Best of the States award.