On Friday, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner approved House Bill 3488, the “Dispositions of Remains Act,” which will go into effect June 1, 2018. The law makes it easier for medical facilities and mortuaries to receive the remains of indigent decedents. It also contains an amendment with three critical components to address the concerns of the Orthodox Jewish community regarding the respectful treatment of human remains and ensuring that unclaimed Jewish decedents receive a traditional burial in accordance with Jewish law.
The first component is that the state must make a good faith effort to discover and verify identifying information regarding the decedent, including ethnicity, religious affiliation and former associations.
The second is a requirement that the state (Department of Public Health) maintain a publicly accessible registry that lists all unclaimed bodies their religious affiliation affiliation if known, along with additional information that could prove helpful to others in identifying religious.
The third component establishes “religious organizations” as a responsible party that can legally claim a body. In order of priority, a religious organization comes after relatives, but before the state. Thus, even if a body was already donated by the state to an anatomical society, a religious organization can reclaim it.
Currently, most unclaimed bodies of the indigent are cremated. The bill was initially introduced to address the shortage of available cadavers for scientific study and medical training, as well as to alleviate costs to mortuaries, funeral homes, and both state and local government. The bill, as introduced, directed state facilities, hospitals, morgues, to offer unclaimed bodies of indigent individuals to institutions of medical, mortuary, or other sciences. This presented a problem that some bodies would be treated in a way inconsistent with the beliefs of the deceased, and a violation of human dignity to observant Jews.
To ensure that most unclaimed indigent Jewish bodies receive a proper burial, an arrangement exists with Cook County’s medical examiner’s office. A weekly list of unclaimed cadavers is sent to religious organizations, and if a body is claimed, the decedent is treated in accordance with their religious beliefs while the county saves on the cost of cremating and disposal. Through Agudath Israel of Illinois’ Chesed Shel Emes program, which is staffed by volunteers and funded by private donors, if an individual on the list is identified as Jewish, the remains are claimed and the body receives a proper Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery. The new law requires that all state facilities follow the new protocols. It will also be a significant improvement over the current arrangement, which is limited to Cook County’s Medical Examiner and is not required by law.
When the original bill was filed in 2016, Agudath Israel of Illinois publicly advocated against it during their annual mission to Springfield and the bill never advanced. This year, the bill’s sponsor, Deputy Republican Leader Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), reached out to Agudath Israel of Illinois’ director of government affairs, Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, to address the concerns of the Orthodox community. After much discussion and consultation with expert rabbinic authorities, Rabbi Soroka worked with Leader Brady to craft an amendment that would create a new and vastly improved statewide system.
Rabbi Soroka thanked Leader Brady and former Senate Representative William O’Conner of the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois for their willingness to work with Agudath Israel and for their tireless efforts. “The sensitivity and integrity they demonstrated throughout the process was most commendable,” said Rabbi Soroka. Rabbi A.D. Motzen, Agudath Israel’s national director of state relations, and Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, President of National Association of Chevra Kadisha, reviewed the legislation and offered invaluable suggestions. Rabbi Zohn expressed his satisfaction with the final bill by saying, “This is probably the best system I’ve seen in the country, and should serve as a model for other states as well.”