The passing of a parent can be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. In cases were the death is a surprise, families can quickly be confronted with important questions about funeral arrangements they might not have the answers for.

In July, longtime Forest Park resident and business owner Brenda McNeil, 71, died at home.

In a letter sent Oct. 28 to the Forest Park Village Council and Police Chief Tom Aftanas, Brett McNeil, of Oak Park, recalled getting the news of his mother’s passing after being awakened at 1 a.m. McNeil said he was told by his brother that police were at his mother’s home in Forest Park and that the family needed to contact a funeral home and make arrangements for the body.

McNeil said he called Forest Park police to ask a few questions and spoke with a communications staff member. He said he received conflicting information about what his options were. An area funeral home told him he did not have to make a decision in the early morning hours, but could have the body taken to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office for holding until arrangements were made. However, McNeil said, he was told by a Forest Park dispatcher that this was not the case and that the county would not accept the body.

In his letter to the village, McNeil said he felt he was given “bad and hassling information at a very difficult time,” and asked the mayor to investigate the police department’s procedures. He also wondered if the village refused to transport his mother’s body to the medical examiner because the village didn’t want to pay for the transport. He recalled feeling pressured to make a decision within 15 minutes of learning his mother had died.

Police are the first call to make

Police Chief Tom Aftanas said that if a person is found deceased at home, the first call made should be to police.

According to Aftanas, a police officer and a paramedic are sent to the home. A police officer will begin an investigation to determine the circumstances involved in the death and the paramedic will determine if lifesaving measures should be taken.

Aftanas added that if the person is deceased and the death appears natural, a paramedic can send the person’s vital information to a doctor at a hospital, who can officially call the time of death.

“Basically, it’s an EKG machine that’s sent to the hospital,” he said.

If foul play is suspected, the body is automatically sent to the medical examiner for an autopsy. However, if the person is over 50 years old and the death is natural, the medical examiner’s office will in most cases release the body to the family and no investigation by the examiner is required.

Aftanas said McNeil’s suggestion that the cost to the village of transporting the body to the medical examiner was not a factor. The village, he said, works with a service for just this purpose and the expense is budgeted by the village each year. Additionally, he said it’s out of police officers’ hands — if the body meets the medical examiner’s criteria for an autopsy investigation, it must go. If not, they won’t accept it, and the body will go to a funeral home.

Aftanas said police are required to remain with a body until it is transported to the medical examiner or funeral home. Police, he said, don’t try to rush the family to make a decision, and an officer can remain at the scene for a reasonable amount of time as arrangements are made.

Medical examiner’s office is not a morgue

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office lists 16 categories when the office will investigate a death, including suicide, suspected drug overdose, criminal violence, and infectious disease, among others.

Becky Schlikerman, spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, said when a death does not meet the office’s criteria for investigation, the body is released to the family, particularly when the deceased is over 50 years old.

“The family should call the funeral home in a case where the medical examiner isn’t taking the case,” said Schlikerman, noting that in a case of natural death, like that of Brenda McNeil, the body would not be eligible for intake by the office. She said the medical examiner’s office has a very specific mission to investigate and is not set up to house bodies for family of the deceased.

“The medical examiner’s office is not a morgue,” she said. “There’s a limit at the [examiner’s] office on how many bodies can be stored.”

Families need a plan

Especially when a death is unexpected, the feeling of being overwhelmed is common, said Kevin Harnett, owner of Zimmerman-Hartnett Funeral Home in Forest Park.

Harnett said that sometimes families will have a prior relationship with a funeral home and when death occurs, they will likely contact that home again if their experience was good. In his experience, price and location are important considerations by the family.

He said funeral homes are available 24/7 to address transportation needs for the body and added that even though the topic of death and the following arrangements can be difficult for families to discuss, it’s an important conversation to have. He said it was a good idea for a person to convey what they would like their arrangements to be to their family.

“Death can be spontaneous,” Harnett said, “but it should be something that you’re prepared for. Just a basic framework should be discussed as to who should handle the arrangements.”

Harnett also runs Metro Mortuary Transport, which transports bodies to the medical examiner for Forest Park, as well as other area municipalities. When he started in the business, he recalled, bodies could be taken to the coroner or to a hospital to be held until a funeral home was decided upon. However, that is no longer the case, as it has become a liability issue for funeral homes, hospitals and the county. 

Forest Park investigating complaint

Brett McNeil said he was contacted by Mayor Anthony Calderone, who expressed his sympathy and told him the issue would be investigated.

McNeil said he hoped his letter will spur the village to consider better training for dispatchers and officers about dealing with family members in similar situations and to provided families with clearer information about their options.

“What I objected to was a lack of sensitivity, or professionalism,” McNeil said.

Aftanas said the department was currently reviewing their procedures and would present information to the village council when the department’s review was complete. 

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