• Ben Szalinski
    FEB 09, 2024


    Nearly 80 families received the wrong cremated remains from a Carlinville funeral home. Now state lawmakers are acting

    Sen. Doris Turner (D-Springfield) speaks at a news conference on Thursday. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line] 

    It’s been nearly a year since the Morgan County coroner discovered major issues with misidentified and mishandled human remains at a Carlinville funeral home, which quickly led to dozens of families around the country learning the cremated remains they received from Heinz Funeral Home weren’t actually the remains of their loved ones.  

    Investigations into what happened at the funeral home and identifying the correct remains for about 80 families around the country continues, especially for Sangamon Coroner Jim Allmon who had to exhume a fifth set of misidentified remains from Camp Butler Cemetery in Springfield on Thursday before he attended a news conference at the State Capitol.

    Why so many families received the wrong cremations from Heinz Funeral Home is still unclear. But the incident is sparking Central Illinois lawmakers to file legislation to find a way to ensure it never happens again.  

    “Can you imagine when you feel like you have not been able to fulfill your loved one’s last religious considerations so that they can rest in peace?” Sen. Doris Turner (D-Springfield) said at a news conference Thursday. “We just don’t want to have any other families go through that horrific situation.” 

    Turner said one of her top legislative priorities this spring is to pass SB2643 to establish uniform standards and regulations for any organization, such as funeral homes, handling human remains. The bill calls for organizations to establish a unique identification system for the remains and a chain of custody procedure to track what happens to the remains.  

    All the remains involved in the Carlinville case have been cremated and the remains given to the family members have had identification numbers that go back to another person. In many cases, a family received cremations while the body of their loved one was later located intact at the county morgue or rotting inside the funeral home. In other cases, which Allmon said spans across at least five states, the family that received the ashes already spread them some place, lost to wind and irretrievable for the family that should’ve received them.  

    Additionally, the ashes have no biological composition for investigators to test, which still leaves families uncertain that the remains they received following the investigation are actually those of their loved one. Allmon said his office has 10 to 12 sets of cremations for which they cannot identify what family they belong to.  

    “I believe that by putting protocols and procedures into law, we would ensure that no family will have to relive the death of their loved one,” Turner said.   

    Sen. Steve McClure (R-Springfield) said at a news conference on Tuesday that he supports Turner’s bill. He is pushing his own bill to create criminal charges if this ever happened again. Under McClure’s plan (SB3263), it would be a Class 4 felony to knowingly provide inaccurate information about the identity of human remains or provide families with misidentified remains.   

    “This was criminal activity, and our laws should reflect that these are criminal acts,” McClure said.  

    McClure’s bill would not retroactively charge the operator of Heinz.  

    Allmon, a Republican, is supporting both McClure’s and Turner’s bills. The Sangamon County Coroner’s Office and sheriff’s office is investigating Heinz, but McClure, a former Sangamon County prosecutor, explained there’s likely no state law that can lead to criminal charges.  

    “The families that still deal with this on a daily basis still call all the time wanting to know the status and why there hasn’t been any charges filed,” Allmon said Tuesday. “And the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ So working with lawmakers just to get something put on the books, so to speak, just to prevent this or maybe deter someone from doing this again, was the goal.”  

    The owner of Heinz lost his license from the state, despite late intervention from the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. But Allmon said the evidence in the case leads him to believe “this wasn’t an accident.”  

    Turner said she hasn’t reviewed McClure’s bill yet but is interested in working with him. However, Democrats in Springfield have generally shied away for several years now from moving forward any bill that creates new crimes or is viewed as a penalty enhancement.  

    “If you’re looking at creative ways to charge someone for the offenses that were committed here, it’s around a Class 4 felony … this is not a penalty enhancement,” McClure said. “This is simply righting a wrong that is not there in Illinois law. It should not be difficult to charge this sort of behavior.”  

    Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) said a 15-year-old case from Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip provides some precedent and demonstrates why state lawmakers need to pass legislation regulating handling human remains.  

    In 2009, the Cook County Sheriff's Office found employees of the cemetery dug up graves and combined the bodies into a mass grave, then resold the plots for new burials. Four cemetery employees were given prison sentences.  

    “It was a corrupt practice that ended up in criminal charges … the real difficult part of it, and the reason we need regulations, is when people have suffered a death in their family, they’re obviously mourning and they’re in a very vulnerable position and it’s easy for … people to take advantage of them at that point,” said Cunningham, who worked for the sheriff’s office at that time.  

    McClure’s bill has not been assigned to a committee, but Turner’s is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Executive Committee.  

    “No words will ever heal the suffering these families endured after they put their trust in this funeral home,” Rep. Wayne Rosenthal (R-Morrisonville) said. “But legislation and accountability from the state will make sure that these horrific criminal acts never happen again.” 

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