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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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!


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