Federal Oversight of the Cemetery Industry – Burr Oak Cemetery Scandal

July 29, 2009


Stirred by the emotional testimony of the living victims of the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal, congressional leaders left Chicago on Monday intending to push for legislation for federal oversight of the cemetery industry. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) called Monday’s hearing to document the horrors of families whose loved ones may be among hundreds unearthed at Burr Oak in an alleged scheme to resell plots for cash, and to understand how such crimes could have occurred for so long. Rush, chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, said after the three-hour hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse that he’s more convinced than ever that the federal government should play some role in regulating an industry marred by abuse in recent years.

“This was really helpful in giving us a bird’s-eye view of the problems,” Rush said. “Now we need to go back and look at drafting some meaningful legislation.”

Suggestions from the panel, which included four Illinois delegates, included expanding the role of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate cemeteries and adopting a set of minimum standards that all states must follow relating to record-keeping, burials and consumer protection. Some spoke about deeding cemetery land to families who buy plots, and others suggested drafting a consumer Bill of Rights that explains the often confusing funeral care business.

“While the Federal Trade Commission has set minimum standards for truthful dealing for funeral homes, the federal government has turned a blind eye to graveyards,” Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told the panel. “I wish I could say it’s surprising what happened at Burr Oak, but it’s not.”

Slocum chided panel members for the federal government’s resistance to regulate the cemetery and crematory industry in 2002, when a similar panel of lawmakers was called to investigate crimes of abuse at cemeteries in Florida and a crematory in Georgia. Two bills that would have set federal guidelines and expanded the role of the Federal Trade Commission failed to garner enough support from lawmakers.

“No law can stop outright criminality,” Slocum said, “but we must enact tougher, consistent regulations across the country to help deter these and other abuses.”

However, the panel was most moved by the testimony of families who described the alleged crimes at Burr Oak as if they were losing their loved ones all over again.

“My mother sacrificed to make sure somebody who served his community would be buried with dignity,” Hazel Crest resident Roxie Williams, 44, told the panel about burying her father, Matthew Williams, at the cemetery near Alsip in 1978. Williams spoke about the enduring love she has for her father and the grief she felt when she learned he might be among those dug up at Burr Oak.

Rev. Don Grayson, a pastor at Greater Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago and great-grandson of legendary blues and jazz singer Dinah Washington, who is among several generations of Grayson’s family buried at Burr Oak, implored the panel to “look into this matter as if your own family members were involved, as if your parents and ancestry had been disturbed.”

“Put yourself in the place of these families who now have to relive the burden, the pain, the sadness and grief of death,” he said.

As the hearing was taking place, dozens of families showed up at Mt. Glenwood Memorial Gardens South Cemetery to check on loved ones after learning that a human bone was discovered near a storage area on Friday.

The discovery came four days after a lawsuit was filed against the cemetery near Glenwood, alleging the tampering of grave sites, similar to allegations at Burr Oak.

Cook County sheriff’s police are investigating, and a cemetery official told WGN-TV Monday that she was confident that the investigation will clear the air.

Freelance reporter Dennis Sullivan contributed to this report.

Article By: Joel Hood: jhood@tribune.com

Source: Chicago Tribune

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FuneralNet and Tributes.com Form Strategic Partnership for On-Line Obituaries

July 25, 2009

Tributes.com, the online resource for local and national obituary news, announced today that they have established a strategic partnership with FuneralNet, the original and largest provider of custom funeral home websites since 1996. FuneralNet will offer its customers the ability to access a variety of tightly integrated obituary and tribute solutions based on the Tributes.com national platform. This is made possible through the new automated distribution of all posted obituary notices to the popular Tributes.com national Internet destination and the Tributes network of online media partners.  This online national obituary-listing solution provides families around the country a place to list obituaries that, when contrasted with traditional print obituaries, is higher in quality, substantially lower in cost and permanent in nature.

FuneralNet customers will be able to select the obituary solution for their website that best suits their business needs – ranging from standard online obituaries posted on both the funeral home website and Tributes.com, to fully integrated Tributes.com multi-media tribute offerings complete with unlimited photos, music, video and more.  With Tributes.com products, funeral homes have an increased opportunity to generate new revenue streams for their businesses.

“Tributes.com is quickly becoming recognized by consumers and funeral homes as the centralized national resource for lasting online obituaries and tributes.  By partnering with Tributes.com, our clients can offer their families an inexpensive yet far superior alternative to newspaper obituary listings along with enhanced tribute capacities while simultaneously improving their bottom lines. That’s a win-win opportunity,” said Michael Turkiewicz, FuneralNet President.

Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor officially launched Tributes.com in February, 2008 with the goal of creating a single national platform which allows people across the country to reliably locate obituary news and to share the rich stories of their loved one’s lives.

“With the decline of the newspaper industry and the rapid transition of obituary classifieds from print to online, the funeral service profession has an opportunity to influence the direction of a new application of technology that could revolutionize a critical facet of their business,” said John Heald, a fourth-generation licensed funeral director and Vice President of Sales & Business Development for Tributes.com.  “Tributes.com is playing a pivotal role in providing funeral homes, in collaboration with important partners like FuneralNet, the tools and products they need to not only be prepared for but to capitalize on this important market shift. “

About Tributes.com

Tributes.com is the online resource for current local and national obituary news, lasting personal tributes and online community providing support during times of loss and grieving.  Through one centralized national web destination, with over 86 million current and historical death records dating back to the 1930’s, Tributes has made obituary and online memorial service information easily accessible so people can come together online and offline to remember and share the treasured stories of the important people in their lives who have passed away. Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor officially launched Tributes.com in February, 2008.  For more information about Tributes.com, please visit our website at www.tributes.com.

About FuneralNet

Founded in 1996, FuneralNet was the first company to build websites exclusively for death-care businesses and has since become the largest provider of custom death-care websites in America.

FuneralNet’s strength lies in its specific focus on the death-care industry.  Working with many of the leading death-care businesses around the country, FuneralNet has invented or made common many of the programs and website capacities now considered industry standards, such as online obituaries, complete online cremation-arrangement Web sites, flower and catering programs, online forms and many other functions.

FuneralNet’s customer base includes funeral homes, cemeteries, cremation societies, state organizations, and death care vendors. For more information about FuneralNet, please call FuneralNet sales support at (800) 721.8166 opt. 2, or visit our website at funeralnet.com. You may also email questions to sales@funeralnet.com.

MEDIA CONTACT:

Colleen DeVine (For Tributes.com)

Garfield Group Public Relations

(215) 867-8600 x269

cdevine@garfieldgroup.com

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Honoring Funeral Professionals – Landmark Funeral Home Records Histories of One-Half Century Funeral Businesses!

July 18, 2009

A wonderful post appeared in Connecting Directors that seemed worthy on mention here on Funeral News.  All too often the news is less than inspiring, so perhaps this will provide some encouragement to those who proudly service in the funeral service industry.  We encourage you to visit Connecting Directors and support Ashley Boyd in her noble efforts!

Asley has started a website, www.landmarkfuneralhome.com, to honor family owned funeral homes who have been in business for over 50 years. Her goal is to “record the histories of the people who paved the way for all the funeral professionals serving families today”. With all the bad press the industry has been getting latley it is refreshing to see someone who is honoring those who founded this industry and have continiued to offer services based on honesty and intergratiy. Continue to read below for more information about LandmarkFuneralHome.com.

Letter from Ashley:

In 2006 I began to work on a project for our family owned funeral home.  My father, Patrick, had decided to renovate one of our locations and part of the renovation was adding a café to the layout.  The café would serve as a place for the family to have coffee, refreshments and talk.  His design idea was to have a Legacy Café, the walls would be covered in the history of the surrounding area, our funeral home and our family, specially designed tables held family and funeral home memorabilia under glass tops for everyone to see.  Graphic design is my specialty so he gave me the job of taking all the stories and memorabilia from my grandparents, his parents, who had started the funeral home in 1958, and creating the café.  Little did we know that the project would take place during the last 6 months of my grandpa’s life.

I began to sit and talk with them, recording all of their stories and creating the frames with information by decade.  The first frame, entitled “Beginnings”, quotes my grandfather saying “When someone dies it is like a library burning down, all the information and knowledge is lost… unless you share it.”  The project was an amazing gift, to make sure that the legacy of the people who shaped my life so strongly was recorded.

This inspired me to create my newest project, landmarkfuneralhome.com.  I decided to take the opportunity to allow other family owned funeral  homes, with a rich history and strong family background, to share their stories.  LandmarkFuneralHome.com gives family owned funeral homes a chance to share their dedication for their communities with the rest of the country.

The site is completely free and open to any family owned funeral home that is 50 years old or older.  My goal is to record the histories of the people who paved the way for all the funeral professionals serving families today.

Many of us joined the funeral industry because of a family member or friend who had touched us with their commitment to the grieving community.  I want to honor those who came before us and helped build the foundations of the business we value so much.

If you would like to join Landmarkfuneralhome.com please contact Ashley Boyd via email; AshleyBoyd1@mac.com.  You can also visit the site and fill out a contact form.

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Cafe inside Boyd Family Funeral Home


Funeral and Cemetery Expenses in Charlotte, NC – Lack of Competition Drives Up Prices

July 18, 2009

An excellent article appeared in the Charlotte Observer.  Unfortunately, the news isn’t good for Charlotte area residents as it shows what can happen when Competition is reduced.  The article appears below…

When Service Corp. International, the nation’s largest funeral-home chain, bought its biggest competitor in 2006, it took a commanding stake in the Charlotte market and promised to provide quality services and reasonable prices. But three years later, a new survey shows what consumer advocates at the time feared: Charlotte funeral prices have risen, making the city the most expensive in which to be buried or cremated. According to a June survey by Everest Funeral, a research company that works with consumers and life-insurance companies, average funerals in Charlotte cost $5,500, while cremations average $2,821.

The figure for funerals is $1,600 more than the South Atlantic average and $1,500 more than the national average, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Some local independent funeral directors blame the high prices on Service Corp., a Houston-based company that owns more than 1,300 funeral homes nationwide, including 60 percent of the homes in Charlotte.

“It’s called controlling the market, and I hate to say that it’s working,” said Tito Truesdale, co-owner of Rosadale Funeral Parlor, an independent home on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte that competes with Service Corp.

Shawn Strickland, Service Corp.’s market manager for the Charlotte area, says he doesn’t believe the results of the survey because he thinks that funerals in big cities such as New York and Washington cost far more than in Charlotte. He said Service Corp. offers a wide range of prices but that the basic price for a funeral is determined by the cost of that home’s overhead.

“It’s such a subjective question, because it really depends on the family and what they want to see happen,” he said. “We don’t have pricing any much different than anyone else does.”

The president of the local chapter of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to educate consumers about funeral-service options, said Service Corp.’s hold on the Charlotte market easily makes the city the priciest for funeral services.

“I hate that Charlotte is at the top of the list, but I don’t doubt it one bit,” said Mary Brack. The Funeral Consumers Alliance doesn’t have a survey that compares funeral pricing in different cities, but Brack said she’s known for a while that Charlotte had to be one of the most expensive.

Local Service Corp. funeral-home owners offer a variety of explanations for Charlotte’s top ranking. They said cemetery costs and property taxes are rising, and that the move toward less-expensive cremations is forcing up traditional-funeral prices to maintain revenue.

Funeral pricing varies, but experts said smaller, independent companies tend to be less expensive than larger chains because they have less corporate overhead and don’t have to pay dividends to shareholders.

Price shopping

When Mamie Stowe knew she was going lose her husband, Eugene, after his two-year battle with cancer, she almost dreaded the funeral-planning process more than his passing. Stowe wanted to honor him with a church service. But she was afraid of being gouged by a funeral home that wanted to be paid upfront and paid a lot.

After Stowe called around in June for quotes that were “ridiculous” and too expensive, a social worker helped her find T.H. Robertson, owner of a private funeral and cremation practice by the same name. Robertson is able to cut overhead costs by meeting customers in their houses instead of requiring them to come to a funeral home.

Robertson said his prices, starting at $3,295 for funerals and $1,295 for cremations, are lower than Service Corp.’s.

The average price of a Charlotte funeral with Service Corp. has risen 10.5 percent to about $6,300 from about $5,700 in 2006, another Everest survey indicates. Nationally, Service Corp. funerals cost $5,097, which is about $1,200 less than the company’s Charlotte prices, according to the company’s most recent federal earnings reports.

When Service Corp. bought Alderwoods Group Inc. in 2006, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission forced it to sell one of the five Charlotte funeral homes it had acquired. The FTC’s decision reduced Service Corp.’s share of the Charlotte-Gastonia-Monroe market to 44 percent from 62 percent and attempted to prevent the merger from raising funeral prices. But Service Corp. still owns six out of 10 Charlotte funeral homes, and prices have climbed in the years since the merger.

Nationally, Service Corp. controls only 7.8 percent of the funeral industry, with 1,302 funeral homes and 369 cemeteries. The company has its largest presence in Charlotte, owning Harry & Bryant Funeral Home, Forest Lawn West Funeral and Cremation Service, all of the McEwen Funeral Service locations and Wilson Funeral and Cremation Service.

“Charlotte is unique,” said Mark Duffey, president and chief executive of Everest. “Usually you don’t see that level of consolidation, which is what makes (funerals) so expensive there.”

Everest is a national research company that helps clients to compare funeral prices and create a customized funeral service with the home of their choice. Consumers pay $495 for unlimited access to Everest specialists and research data or get help from the company as a life insurance benefit through their employers. The survey is based on a six-month national study that looked at basic funeral prices of homes in a 10-mile radius of each city.

Brandon Cook, manager of Service Corp.-owned Forest Lawn Funeral Home said Charlotte’s high taxes and cost of living escalate the area funeral-home prices. But that still doesn’t explain why Charlotte ranks first on the list of most expensive cities for funerals while major cities with comparable or higher costs of living rank significantly lower – Washington is 12th, New York is 15th and Houston is 20th.

Service Corp. funeral managers also point to Charlotte’s high cremation percentage – 30 percent of Charlotte’s deceased are cremated – as the reason for escalating burial costs. Cremations appeal to people everywhere because they’re cheaper, said Cook, but they are particularly popular in Charlotte because of its transient population.

“If people want to be here only for a brief amount of time, they will be able to take their loved ones with them when they move,” Cook said. The shift from high-cost burials to cremations threatens revenue for the funeral industry, which can force overhead prices to go up. But that doesn’t explain why Charlotte outranks all other cities for funeral expenses because cremations have been on the rise nationwide, attributing for 37 percent of the industry.

Financially squeezed families that are going ahead with burial plans are opting for less formal services. That means cutting out limousine rides, purchasing less ornate caskets and in some cases putting off tombstone purchases, funeral industry experts say.

Antitrust accusations

Service Corp. has run into antitrust accusations before. In 2005, the Funeral Consumers Alliance filed a class-action suit against Service Corp. and other major players in the death-care industry. The suit alleged the companies conspired to overcharge customers on caskets by suppressing competition. While not dismissed, the case has not gone forward.

In 1999, Service Corp. faced charges from the New York state attorney general that the company was dominating the Jewish funeral home business there and hurting consumers by raising funeral prices. Service Corp. settled out of court, agreeing to sell three of its Jewish funeral homes and pay the state $1.2 million for the investigation.

Service Corp. also received civil-investigation demands in 2005 and 2006 from the Maryland attorney general about alleged anticompetitive practices in the funeral industry there.

Barak Richman, a professor at Duke University School of Law, said restrictions are put on monopolies because they can pose harm to market competition.

“When all services in a market are dominated by a single provider, output goes down and prices go up,” he said. “But if a monopolist charges higher prices, that should theoretically allow other people to enter the market and provide services at a lower cost.”

Strickland said Service Corp. does not have a monopoly of the Charlotte area and has continued to meet the needs of residents during their times of grief.

“I don’t want to see you come in when you’ve had a death and have to spend a lot of money,” he said. “We can customize the service to fit any budget.”

By: Cameron Steele cameronsteele@charlotteobserver.com

Do you think that ownership of major funeral and/or cemetery providers in your area has hampered competition?  COMMENTS WELCOME!


Burr Oak Cemetery Investigation – Babyland Now Included!

July 10, 2009

As part of our continuing coverage CNN now reports that an infant burial section called “Babyland” is now part of the investigation.  The article from CNN is reproduced here:

A Cook County cemetery where hundreds of graves were dug up and allegedly resold has been declared a crime scene, meaning that relatives of people believed buried there will not be allowed to visit for several days, an official said Friday.

Family members and police gather outside the Burr Oak Cemetery office in Alsip, Illinois, on Wednesday.

“It would be the height of irresponsibility for me to invite people in, to raise expectations and then crash them,” Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart told reporters in a news conference held at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. He pleaded for patience, saying he hoped to reopen the 150-acre cemetery to the public in five to seven days.

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Dart said the scope of the investigation has broadened to include “Babyland,” a section of the cemetery intended for children.

“A lot of women came up to me and asked for help with Babyland,” he said. “To a person, every one I talked to could not find any of their children in Babyland.”

A large number of grave sites “are completely missing,” he said, adding that he had received more than 5,000 telephone inquiries and 1,700 e-mails about the matter since the investigation began.

As many as half of the complaints were about missing headstones, 25 to 30 percent were about loved ones who had been relocated, he said.

He cited the experience of one family looking for 10 relatives buried there. “They couldn’t find anybody,” he said.

In addition, in some cases there are no records of burials having taken place, despite relatives’ insistence that they did, he said. In other cases, records have been altered, destroyed or found in people’s houses, he said.

“Our office has to investigate over 5,000 grave sites due to the vast amounts of inquiries from grieving family members,” he said.

Dart said he himself walked through the cemetery on Friday and what he saw was disturbing. “I found bones out there,” he said. “I found individuals wandering aimlessly looking for their loved ones who can’t find them.”

Some people told him that an entire area that used to have gravestones facing in one direction now has them facing in another direction, he said.

“This is getting bigger,” he said. “We don’t have an end in sight … more people have not found relatives than have found them.”

More than 2,000 families have descended on the cemetery since authorities uncovered what they say was a scheme to resell the plots, excavate the graves, dump the remains and pocket the cash.

Four people face felony charges for their alleged involvement.

He had said earlier this week that the number of disturbed graves was around 300, but said Friday that number was sure to rise.

One family arrived on Thursday to bury a woman in a plot they had purchased and found the plot was already occupied, he said.

Authorities also discovered Emmett Till’s original casket in a dilapidated garage on the cemetery grounds. The casket had been replaced by a new one after Till’s body was exhumed in 2005.

“There was wildlife living inside of it,” Dart said of the old casket, found in the corner of a garage filled with lawn care equipment and other “piles of things.”

Till was killed in August 1955 in Mississippi after the 14-year-old reportedly whistled at a white woman.

His body was exhumed 50 years later as part of a renewed investigation into his death. The Chicago Tribune reported that he was reburied in a different casket.

Thousands of people had viewed Till’s body in the original casket in Chicago shortly after he was killed, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at the news conference.

“His mother had the gut and grit to say that ‘I want America to see what they did to my baby’s body,'” Jackson said about Till, whose body was mutilated.

“More than 100,000 saw his body lying at the church. It is said that those who saw his body were never the same again,” he said.

“Emmett Till’s lynching redefined emotions in our culture in very fundamental ways. So to see his casket in this state of desecration and neglect is very painful.”

Cemetery groundskeepers told investigators that Till’s grave was not among those disturbed in the alleged resale scheme, Dart said earlier this week.

Carolyn Towns, an office manager for the cemetery; and Keith Nicks, Terrance Nicks and Maurice Daley, all gravediggers, have each been charged with dismembering a human body, a felony charge for which sentences range from six to 30 years, authorities said.

Steven Watkins, an attorney for Towns, said his client is innocent. The public defender’s office in Cook County said it had represented the three others at the bond hearing but could not provide a statement for them.

Authorities began investigating the cemetery — where, along with Till, blues legend Dinah Washington and some Negro League baseball players are buried — about six weeks ago after receiving a call from its owners, who said they suspected “financial irregularities” regarding the business, Dart said earlier this week.

He said the owners are not believed to be involved in the alleged scam.

More to come and comments are welcome!


Burr Oak Cemetery Scandal – Emmett Till’s Original Casket Found – Charges Pending!

July 10, 2009

CNN reports the following:

Authorities revealed more disturbing discoveries Friday at an Illinois cemetery where hundreds of burial plots were allegedly dug up and art.illinois.cemetery2.giresold, including more emptied graves and the discarded casket of a civil rights icon.

Family members and police gather outside the Burr Oak Cemetery office in Alsip, Illinois, on Wednesday.

More than 2,000 families went to Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, after authorities uncovered what they say was a scheme to excavate the graves, dump the remains, resell the plots and pocket the cash.

Four people face felony charges.

As families arrived to check on their loved ones’ graves, they told authorities about 30 more cases “where another crime scene is obvious,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said at a news conference.

Earlier this week, Dart estimated the number of disturbed graves at about 300, but he said Friday the number is likely to rise.

“People have gone to grave sites where the headstones are gone. People have gone to the grave sites where a different person is there now. People have gone to grave sites where it’s clear that something has been removed,” he said.

New burials are taking place, Dart said, and one family that arrived Thursday to bury a woman found that the plot was already occupied.

Dart also said Friday that authorities discovered Emmett Till’s original casket in a dilapidated garage on the cemetery grounds. Till was reportedly buried in a different casket after his body was exhumed in 2005.

“There was wildlife living inside of it,” Dart said of the old casket, which he said was found in the corner of a garage filled with lawn care equipment and other “piles of things.”

Till, 14, was brutally killed in August 1955 in Mississippi after he reportedly whistled at a white woman. Despite the gruesome condition of his corpse, his mother insisted on a public funeral and open casket in an effort to draw attention to the ferocity of her son’s killing.

His body was exhumed 50 years later as part of a renewed probe into his death. The Chicago Tribune reported that he was reburied in a different casket.

Thousands of people viewed Till’s body in the original casket in Chicago shortly after he was killed, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at Friday’s news conference.

“His mother had the gut and grit to say that, ‘I want America to see what they did to my baby’s body,’ ” Jackson said. “More than 100,000 saw his body lying at the church. It is said that those who saw his body were never the same again.

Emmett Till‘s lynching redefined emotions in our culture in very fundamental ways,” Jackson said. “So to see his casket in this state of desecration and neglect is very painful.”

Cemetery groundskeepers told investigators that Till’s grave was not among those disturbed in the alleged scheme, Dart said earlier this week.

Carolyn Towns, an office manager for the cemetery, and gravediggers Keith Nicks, Terrance Nicks and Maurice Daley have each been charged with dismembering a human body, a felony. Sentences could range from six to 30 years, authorities said.

Steven Watkins, an attorney for Towns, said his client is innocent. The public defender’s office in Cook County said it had represented the three others at the bond hearing but could not provide a statement.

Authorities began investigating the cemetery — where, along with Till, blues legend Dinah Washington and some Negro League baseball players are buried — about six weeks ago after receiving a call from its owners.

The owners said they suspected “financial irregularities” regarding the business, Dart said earlier this week.

The owners are not believed to be involved in the alleged scam.

Here’s a link to another article on this subject:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/10/emmett-tills-original-cas_n_229353.html


Chicago Cemetery Workers Face Felony Charges for Digging Up and Reselling Graves at Burr Oak Cemetery – This Was No Last Resting Place

July 10, 2009

Four people face felony charges after authorities discovered that hundreds of graves were dug up and allegedly resold at a historic African-American cemetery near Chicago, Illinois, authorities said Thursday. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the four would resell the plots in Burr Oak Cemetery in burr_oak_cemetery_88915412Alsip, excavate the graves, dump the remains and pocket the cash. “This was not done in a very, very delicate way, folks,” he told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

“They would excavate a grave and would proceed to dump the remains wherever they found a place to do it in the back of the cemetery. This was not moving graves; this was not replacing graves; this was dumping of them.”

In some cases, graves were stacked on top of each other, they “literally pounded the other one down,” Dart said. In all about 300 graves may have been dug up in the cemetery, he said.

Authorities identified those charged as Carolyn Towns, an office manager for the cemetery; and Keith Nicks, Terrance Nicks and Maurice Daley, all gravediggers.

Each has been charged with dismembering a human body, a felony charge for which sentences range from 6 to 30 years, Anita Alvarez, Cook County state’s attorney, said at the news conference.

Steven Watkins, an attorney for Towns, said his client is innocent. “Somebody is apparently making false accusations against my client,” he said. “She’s maintaining her innocence.”

The Cook County state attorney’s office said the other three charged were being represented by the public defender’s office, and a message left at that office was not immediately returned.

Bail was set at $250,000 for Towns and $200,000 for the other three, Alvarez said. None had posted bail by late afternoon Thursday, the sheriff’s department said.

It was not immediately known if the four had legal counsel.

Authorities began investigating the cemetery — where, among others, lynching victim Emmett Till, blues legend Dinah Washington and some Negro League baseball players are buried — about six weeks ago after receiving a call from its owners who had concerns about possible “financial irregularities” regarding the business, Dart told CNN earlier this week.

“This crime, it’s a whole new dimension,” Alvarez said. Authorities also suspect that Towns pretended to set up a memorial fund for Till and pocketed the funds, Dart said.

He told CNN that groundskeepers, who have not been implicated in the scheme, have said that the grave of Till — whose 1955 lynching at age 14 helped spark the civil rights movement — has not been disturbed.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was also at the news conference, noted the high-profile names of some of those buried in the cemetery, but said, “everybody here is special, and every family has special needs and special hurt, special grief.”

Most of the excavations occurred in back lots, where the plots were older and not frequently visited, Dart said earlier this week. However, other plots may have been disturbed, as well.

The cemetery’s current owners, who could not be reached by CNN for comment, have operated it for more than five years but are not believed to be involved in the alleged scam, Dart said.

He said the workers may have doctored records to cover their tracks and noted that the cemetery holds all the records of who is buried and where.

“There’s virtually no regulations whatsoever (for cemeteries),” Dart said. “Most all of the documents and everything are housed here.”

Investigators are trying to determine the scope of the alleged scheme and plan to use thermal-imaging devices to further examine other graves to see if they have been tampered with, Dart said.

The FBI, forensic scientists and local funeral directors have been called in to help in the investigation, he said.

“I don’t even know what to tell you about the heartbreaking stories that I’ve been hearing from people, crying hysterically that they’re going through the burial for the second time today,” he said.

“And they’re looking for answers and we’re sitting there telling them, ‘This is going to be very difficult,” he said. “We’re trying to bring closure, but it’s going to take a long time to do that.”

Source: CNN.com and ConnectingDirectors.com