Chicago Sun-Times

DE­TEC­TIVE FOR THE DEAD

When bod­ies go un­claimed, she steps in

- BY STE­FANO ES­POS­ITO Staff Re­porter

“WHEN I READ THROUGH IT, I’M LIKE, THIS HAS GOT TO BE THE COOLEST JOB I’VE EVER HEARD OF. I WANT TO BE A DE­TEC­TIVE. BUT I DON’T NEC­ES­SAR­ILY WANT TO BE A COP.” RE­BECA PER­RONE, in­di­gent co­or­di­na­tor for the Cook County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice

It’s quiet here in the base­ment of the Cook County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice. The lights are low. The only com­pany — the hun­dreds of lit­tle, white, card­board boxes stacked here for stor­age, the num­bers, scrawled on the end of each in black marker, the only hint of what’s con­tained in­side.

It’s here, sur­rounded by these boxes filled with the cre­mated re­mains of peo­ple whose bod­ies fam­i­lies didn’t care to re­trieve or couldn’t af­ford to or didn’t know were wait­ing, that Re­beca Per­rone comes to seek refuge.

“It’s ac­tu­ally nice,” says Per­rone, who is a li­ai­son of sorts be­tween the morgue and those whose loved ones end up in this place. “You get away from ev­ery­thing. I don’t think any­body knows the phone num­ber down here.”

Up­stairs, in her win­dow­less of­fice, on busy days, her phone rings con­stantly. It might be a son or a daugh­ter fran­tic at the thought of Dad ly­ing on a steel gur­ney in the morgue’s cooler. Or a nephew — call­ing from a pay­phone — say­ing he’s the next of kin but is in jail and can’t get out in time to make ar­range­ments for his un­cle’s body.

Per­rone started work­ing at the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice in April 2015. Her job had just been cre­ated as part of the sweep­ing changes made fol­low­ing rev­e­la­tions of ap­palling con­di­tions at the morgue — in­clud­ing bod­ies stacked one atop an­other be­neath tarps.

In a given week, Per­rone, who’s paid $ 54,188 a year, is re­spon­si­ble for 15 to 30 bod­ies. Some will have died in a nurs­ing home. Oth­ers died at home from un­known causes, so they end up at the morgue to be au­top­sied. She rarely deals with homi­cides.

The clock is al­ways tick­ing. Per­rone’s mis­sion is to track down fam­ily mem­bers — and keep the cooler from over­flow­ing. She scrolls through data­bases in search of a phone num­ber that might lead to a rel­a­tive. Some­times, she writes let­ters. Most of the time, if she’s lucky enough to reach some­one, they know why Per­rone is call­ing.

But not al­ways. Some­times, she has to ut­ter the words she hates most — her “grim reaper” speech: “Hi, this is Re­beca Per­rone from the Cook County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice. I’m call­ing to let you know . . .”

Some gasp, some sob. Then, they want to know their op­tions. How much does a pri­vate cre­ma­tion cost? Is there any­one, some group that can help with the cost? How much time do I have to pick up the body?

Per­rone is po­lite but firm on that last point. She tells fam­ily mem­bers they have 30 days to make ar­range­ments to pick up the body. Other­wise, the county will cre­mate the body. Then, the re­mains will be avail­able for pickup — but they will have to pay $ 100 ( cash or cashier’s check only).

She also puts peo­ple in touch with or­ga­ni­za­tions that might be able to help with the cost of a pri­vate funeral.

It might sound grim. But not to Per­rone. The 30- year- old, who grew up in Al­go­nquin, found the post­ing for it on­line and couldn’t be­lieve her luck.

“When I read through it, I’m like, this his has got to be the coolest job I’ve ever heard of,” she says in a quiet, sooth­ing voice, the voice of some­one ac­cus­tomed to deal­ing with those who are griev­ing. “I want to be a de­tec­tive. But I don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to be a cop.”

She got a close- up look at what the po­lice some­times have to do when she worked for In­di­ana’s Depart­ment of Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, tak­ing kids out of homes where they were abused or ne­glected, a job she calls “heart- wrench­ing.”

Per­rone is sin­gle, likes to play ar­cade games and hasn’t had to deal with death much her­self — ex­cept at work.

Still, she has a way of putting

peo­ple at ease, un­der­stand­ing with­out be­ing syrupy. And she never, ever raises her voice.

About half the bod­ies Per­rone deals with end up get­ting picked up by fam­ily.

Of those the county cre­mates, loved ones ul­ti­mately will re­trieve the re­mains of not even one in four of them.

Per­rone brings the boxes con­tain­ing the re­mains to a small, tem­po­rary stor­age room. Be­fore it gets too crowded, they go down­stairs to the base­ment stor­age. She al­ways car­ries them on a cart, wor­ried that other­wise she might drop a box.

“It’s a ter­ri­ble fear,” she says.

If no one comes for the re­mains af­ter a year, the boxes are slot­ted into a cas­ket, with hon­ey­comb- like com­part­ments for each of them, and taken to Mount Olivet Ceme­tery on the Far South Side for burial.

Why, be­sides a lack of money, don’t peo­ple pick up re­mains? Un­less some­one of­fers that in­for­ma­tion, she doesn’t ask. She says she doesn’t need it clut­ter­ing up her brain.

“I get a lot of sto­ries — some­times more than I need to hear about what’s going on,” she says.

Among the cases she’s deal­ing with on this Jan­uary day is that of an 18- year- old man whose grand­mother died in Novem­ber. As he was get­ting to­gether the pa­per­work — and the money — to have the body cre­mated, his mother died, too. Per­rone al­lowed the young man a rare ex­emp­tion to the 30- day dead­line. But now the fam­ily wants more time.

“I can’t do three weeks,” she says, speak­ing on the phone with a friend of the fam­ily. “Un­for­tu­nately, I can’t keep her here that long.”

The fam­ily agrees, re­luc­tantly, to have the body cre­mated by the county.

A lit­tle later, Per­rone is talk­ing with a man who was in prison when his mother died in Septem­ber 2016 and now is on house ar­rest. He wants Per­rone to write a let­ter to his pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer to see if he can leave home to come get his mother’s ashes from the morgue.

“He just doesn’t want to leave her here,” Per­rone says af­ter the call.

But she doubts the pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer will go along with the re­quest.

She’s more hope­ful about case No. 04896. That’s the num­ber writ­ten on one of the seven card­board boxes that are stacked on a file cabi­net in her of­fice. The 62- year- old Chicago man died in Novem­ber 2015 of “nat­u­ral causes.”

Per­rone has been try­ing for some time to ar­range for a pickup of the cre­mated re­mains. But the dead man’s son is in jail. A cousin who al­ready has missed one ap­point­ment to re­trieve the ashes is sup­posed to come on this day, but he’s late.

Even­tu­ally, he shows up, and Per­rone leads him to an­other part of the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice. He hands her $ 100 in cash. She hands him the box.

Per­rone finds her work grat­i­fy­ing.

“I have peo­ple tell me all the time that what I did for them helped them in so many dif­fer­ent ways,” Per­rone says.

One of those is Ken Mech. His aunt died of old age at Rush Uni­ver­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in June 2015. It was Per­rone’s job to track down rel­a­tives.

She even­tu­ally reached one of Mech’s cousins, but some­thing wasn’t right. The cousin promised to make ar­range­ments but never did. So Per­rone called the po­lice and asked them to do a well- be­ing check at the Brighton Park home.

When po­lice ar­rived, they found the men­tally dis­abled cousin liv­ing in squalid con­di­tions. An­other cousin lay on the floor, ema­ci­ated. That cousin later died, Mech says. But were it not for Per­rone, Mech says, he might have been ar­rang­ing fu­ner­als for both cousins.

“It could have been much worse if it wasn’t for Re­beca,” says Mech, 52, who is now the sur­viv­ing cousin’s le­gal guardian. “She prob­a­bly ac­tu­ally saved my cousin’s life.”

 ?? ASHLEE REZIN/ SUN- TIMES ?? Re­beca Per­rone works in her Near West Side of­fice.
ASHLEE REZIN/ SUN- TIMES Re­beca Per­rone works in her Near West Side of­fice.
 ?? | LES­LIE AD­KINS/ SUN- TIMES ?? West Lawn res­i­dent Ken­neth Mech, hold­ing a photo of his aunt Mary, praises what Re­beca Per­rone did for his fam­ily af­ter his aunt’s death.
| LES­LIE AD­KINS/ SUN- TIMES West Lawn res­i­dent Ken­neth Mech, hold­ing a photo of his aunt Mary, praises what Re­beca Per­rone did for his fam­ily af­ter his aunt’s death.
 ??  ?? Thank- you cards from peo­ple Re­beca Per­rone tracked down so they could claim the re­mains of their loved ones.| ASHLEE REZIN/ SUN- TIMES
Thank- you cards from peo­ple Re­beca Per­rone tracked down so they could claim the re­mains of their loved ones.| ASHLEE REZIN/ SUN- TIMES

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