07/06/2011 02:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2011

Illinois Could Drastically Cut Burials For The Poor, Pastors Protest

While massive budget cuts threaten the existence of a program that pays funeral homes and cemeteries to honor and bury deceased individuals whose families cannot afford such services, a coalition of Illinois pastors have lashed out against the plan.

The group, called Pastors United for Change, said Tuesday that if the program goes unfunded in Illinois' new budget, "a national embarrassment" could result as bodies pile up "in President Barack Obama's home state," as Chicago's Greater St. John Bible Church Rev. Ira Acree said, according to an AP report.

The Rev. Roosevelt Watkins, of Chicago's Bethlehem Star Church, described the potential lack of funding for the program "outrageous" and "unfair."

When questioned by reporters about the program Tuesday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D) said he would review the budget to see how drastic the planned cuts are and added, "I think we want to make sure there is a decent funeral for anyone."

But it appears likely that Quinn already knew that the cuts to the program, overseen by the state's Department of Human Services, were coming. As the AP reported, Quinn's originally proposed budget had cut the $12.6 million program to zero. The budget passed earlier this year by the General Assembly ended up restoring funding to the program, but only to the tune of $1.9 million.

The program reportedly pays for around 12,000 funerals and burials each year. In order to qualify for the program, the deceased is required to have been receiving public assistance of some kind. The program pays a maximum of $1,103 for each funeral and $552 for each burial.

In a related issue in Cook County, county commissioner John Fritchey is behind a push to create new standards for the way the county handles the burials of the poor, unclaimed and otherwise unknown, as the Northwest Indiana Times reported.

Problems with burial practices had originally been noted at the Homewood Memorial Gardens in Homewood, where bodies were being stacked as many as eight high in a man-made hill in the cemetery. The facility had been receiving $167,300 from the county to conduct the indigent burials under a contract approved in 1980.