Ashes to Ashes: In Illinois, the Erasure of Incarcerated People Continues After Death

This mausoleum at Oak Grove Cemetery in Hillsboro, Illinois, is the final resting place of some prisoners who died at the nearby Graham Correctional Center. (Photo: Sybil Drew; Edited: LW / TO)This mausoleum at Oak Grove Cemetery in Hillsboro, Illinois, is the final resting place of some prisoners who died at the nearby Graham Correctional Center. (Photo: Sybil Drew; Edited: LW / TO)

The mausoleum at the Oak Grove Cemetery in Hillsboro, Illinois, holds a secret: Hidden away in the top shelf are more than a dozen containers of unclaimed ashes. They hold the cremains of prisoners who died at the nearby Graham Correctional Center, a medium security all-male facility that caters to the state’s sick prisoner population, offering substance abuse treatment and a kidney dialysis program. After being in limbo, sitting for several years inside a metal cabinet at the Montgomery County Coroner’s office, the prisoners made their way to this much-deserved peaceful final resting place.

Terry Plummer, owner of the Plummer Funeral Home in Litchfield, Illinois, says each funeral home near Graham Correctional Center takes a turn picking up a prisoner and taking care of their body. “The Illinois Department of Human Services used to have an ‘Indigent Burial Fund’ — it was $1,600 for each person — $1,100 for transport and storage of the body and $500 for burial or cremation. Over the years, Gov. Bruce Rauner and [Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives] Mike Madigan cut it out of the budget. Now the Montgomery County Coroner has to find a way to pay for it himself.” Plummer stresses that each funeral home does this as an act of charity. “After a while, you can’t do them anymore; you’re losing money. It gets to be too much.”

It’s up to each individual prison warden within the state of Illinois to decide whether to bury or cremate the unclaimed prisoners who pass away in their facility. Todd Snedecor, co-owner of Duffy-Baier-Snedecor Funeral Home in Pontiac, Illinois, says, “The warden at Pontiac Correctional Center does not allow cremation because he is worried that families will come back later asking to claim the body.” Snedecor says all prisoners are laid to rest at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Prior to that, they were interred at South Side Cemetery in Pontiac, but space there filled up.

A visit to St. Mary’s reveals a staggering number of unclaimed men’s bodies: More than 80 prisoners are buried together in tightly packed rows, off in a forgotten corner of the cemetery. Their grave markers are simple, unadorned concrete blocks spaced just inches apart. A short drive away in downtown Pontiac, less than a mile from the historic Route 66 museum, is the expansive South Side Cemetery. Sitting at the far south end, there are 95 more prisoners, with some stones dating back to the 1870s, when the facility was first opened as a reform school for boys.

Terry Plummer explains that in order to claim their next of kin’s cremains, a family member would have to pay their final expenses, which might be a tough thing to do for a working-class or low-income household. A basic cremation can cost anywhere from $1,700 to $2,700. “That’s too much for some people, especially if the person was in prison” Plummer says. “Back 10, 20 years ago, the family would all get together and chip in to take care of a loved one that died.” But now times are different. He says that even a family without the added stigma of incarceration has trouble covering the cost.

With an estimated 4,000 deaths in custody across the US per year, the unclaimed containers began to pile up in Hillsboro. The number would eventually grow to 14. Unsure of what to do, the county coroner began placing them in a metal cabinet, a temporary fix for a growing problem. Finally, in 2014, Montgomery County Clerk Sandy Leitheiser decided to do the right thing and give them a proper burial. Leitheiser, who plays the keyboard in a Christian bluegrass band called Scrap Iron and Gold, donated the proceeds from several gigs to pay for the top shelf at Oak Grove Cemetery mausoleum in Hillsboro. The price? Just $930. The space can fit much more than just 14 sets of cremains — it can easily be unsealed as needed and filled with more than 100 prisoners. Although not the most prized spot within the mausoleum, it is still a far cry from where the men used to be.

Hopeful that someone will come forward to take their loved one home, when asked if anyone had, Terry Plummer takes a deep breath and says, “So far, no family has come to claim their ashes.”