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Chicago Heat Wave Victims Buried Together

By Judy Pasternak
Los Angeles Times

As quietly and dispassionately as they died, the last victims of the brutal heat wave of 1995 were laid to rest Friday in a mass grave 160 feet long, 10 feet wide and the traditional six feet deep.

The temperature was a muggy 78 degrees, 28 degrees cooler than the record set on July 13 - the 106-degree day that probably felled most of the 591 people in metropolitan Chicago who did not survive the blast-oven weather.

No one will know the dates of death for sure. Most of the fatalities were elderly, poor and alone, leaving so small a mark on the world that it was days before anyone noticed they were gone and their bodies were finally discovered. For Chicago, the astonishingly high toll was a lesson in how easy it is to disappear while still alive, a stunning realization of how isolated and fearful many old people here are.

Forty-one of the corpses taken to the Cook County morgue during those horrible days of revelation still remain alone in death. They never were claimed, despite the best efforts of county investigators.

They found the name of a daughter for Mildred Stojkovic, age 70, but the certified letter they sent was returned.

The daughter of Leonard Hymer, 66, was located in an affluent suburb. She said on the telephone she'd like to see the furnished room where her father had spent his last days, but she never took responsibility for his funeral.

"So many cases," said Mark Roach, who helped whittle the list of indigent heat-wave dead down from 145. "They all blur together."

Robert Yankovich, wheelchair-bound. Edward Hoffman, who liked to drink. Lisa Kimberley, William Reidsville, Lydia Payne, Ethel Young.

At the county's contract cemetery, Homewood Memorial Gardens, they were laid side by side, each encased in a plain pine box with a numbered brass tag. The nails in the top had already left a crack in one casket. A sheet of white plastic extended from the side of another.

The heat victims were not even differentiated from the other July paupers; the more typical monthly caseload of 27 who died from other causes was placed in the trench as well.

"This is kind of the end of the operation for us," said Mike Boehmer, who represented the medical examiner's office at the funeral.

He was one of a handful of county officials who attended. The president of the Homewood Historical Society came as well. She wanted to gather details because the group re-enacts famous local funerals.

The Revs. Robert Stepek and Michael Nallen, priests from a Catholic parish in this south suburb, stepped up to the line of pine boxes.

"Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name," intoned one. Within minutes, with a sign of the cross and a shake of holy water, they were done.

They came unsolicited. "It seemed as though no one was around. No one was there to care," said Stepek afterward. "We need to pray for those people. Their lives had worth."