CHICAGO (CNS) — Eighteen simple wooden caskets containing indigent adults and unborn babies sat atop graves at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery awaiting burial April 25. Beside them stood funeral directors dressed in black and holding single white carnations.

Just minutes before, each casket was removed from funeral hearses, which made a procession with a police escort from the Cook County Morgue to the cemetery on Chicago’s southwest side. With some drizzling rain mixed in, it was a solemn beginning to a Catholic gravesite memorial service conducted by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago.

The journey began a few months back when the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office reported a backlog of more than 300 bodies in storage, more than its capacity. Part of the reason for the backlog was that the state of Illinois hasn’t paid funeral directors to bury indigent bodies since June 2011, according to news reports.

After hearing of the situation, Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago offered the county 300 graves to take care of the backlog. This was the first burial by Catholic Cemeteries since that offer was made. The county previously had other burials to clear some of the backlog.

Indigent means that the deceased could not afford to pay for his or her burial or their family could not pay. In some cases, no families could be found. In Cook County, unborn children are still considered human remains and must be buried. Other counties consider them medical waste and dispose of them. County spokeswoman Mary Paleologos said she believes the practice in Cook County will change in the near future and the unborn babies will be disposed of as medical waste.

Thirteen adults and 120 unborn babies, or fetuses, were buried April 25. Each of the five fetal caskets contained 24 unborn children. The medical examiners’ office selected the bodies for burial at Mount Olivet. No family members were present at the service.

“As good citizens of Cook County we offered burial space at Mount Olivet Cemetery to assist the Cook County medical examiner in burying the dead,” said Msgr. Pat Pollard, director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, at the beginning of the service. “Our Catholic commitment to respect and reverence of all life is exemplified today for we are about to bury unborn children and those who lived many decades upon this earth.”

Msgr. Pollard assisted the cardinal during the service along with Father Daniel Mallette and the Rev. Steve Jones. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle were on hand at the service.

Offering to bury the indigent and the unborn babies is what we do as Catholics, Cardinal George said following the service.

“We bury the dead because it is a corporal work of mercy. It’s something that is enjoined in holy Scripture. That’s because everyone is made in God’s image and likeness,” he said. “Our way of burying people who have gone to the Lord is a way of professing that faith.”

The graves will remain unmarked unless the families pay for a marker. Catholic Cemeteries, now in its 175th year, has kept open its offer to bury up to 300 adults or unborn children at Mount Olivet if the county has the need.

According to Paleologos, Catholic Cemeteries donated about $2,500 in services for each burial for a total of about $45,000. The funeral directors donated about $5,000 in services.