Federal Oversight of the Cemetery Industry – Burr Oak Cemetery Scandal

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

Funeral News is sponsored by American Funeral Funding a division of American Funeral Financial.


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