Friday, July 10, 2009

Burr Oak Cemetery





When I drove by Burr Oak Cemetery sometime last week, I noticed that at the far northwest corner, along 123rd Street, earth moving equipment and a lot of rubble. That seemed odd to me, as the view through the fence at any angle is usually unhindered. The ground is flat here, allowing one to see from one end of the property to the other. There are very few headstones, although there are a lot of family placed flowers and wreaths. It's obvious from the get go that a lot of poor people have been buried here. The grounds are pristine, weeded and the grass is tended. It has always impressed me that even if the people who had family there weren't rich, they cared.
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Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were not allowed to be buried in most cemeteries. Burr Oak Cemetery is one of three that I know of. It is the resting place of many blues musicians as well as players from the old Negro League. Possibly the most famous person buried there is Emmett Till.
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Wednesday I went shopping. Before leaving Bill told me that his best friend, Bill E., had called. Bill E. said that 127th Street was closed off and there were State helicopters flying back and forth over head. An hour or so later I pulled up in front of the house. Ed ran out to meet me. "We just saw it on the news," he said. "There's human bones all over 127th Street, coming out of Burr Oak Cemetery."
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I rushed inside to catch another newscast about how human remains had been dug up and deposited all over. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart spoke about how there were people coming from all over the City of Chicago to check on the disposition of their loved ones. The news reporters said that he deputized family members, telling them to go look for graves.
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Here it is two days later. Sheriff Dart was still there and still meeting with people. The crowds are larger and people are in tears. Sheriff Dart was visably shaken. He said, "They want to know where their parents are, or where their babies are. I don't know how much more of this I can handle." Early this afternoon, he reported that 2 to 300 graves have been disintured. Records have been altered or destroyed.
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One of the first questions from the news media was whether Emmet Till was still where they were buried in 2005 after his body was exhumed for another autopsy. Till was the 14 year old boy who was murdered in the summer of 1955 while visiting family down South. He winked at a white woman. Family members found his mangled body in August of that year. He had been chained to a wheel and dropped into a pond or lake. He was shipped back to Chicago for burial. His mother insisted that his casket remain open and that visitors see what was done to him. When he was reburied in Burr Oak, his body was placed in another coffin. I heard a rumor today that his old coffin was found in a cemetery warehouse.
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Four cemetery employees were arrested and charged with dismembering a human body. One was the manager, and the other 3 were grave diggers. This went further than just a morbid fascination. It was a get rich quick scheme where cemetery employees dug up corpses, disposed of them, resold the grave sites, and apparently it has been going on for years. It is estimated that they have taken in as much as $300,000. The mastermind was the manager. She is being held in a psychiatric facility.
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Another employee was interviewed and dismissed. She took orders, but according to investigators, hasn't profited from the scheme. When she questioned others about inequities, she was told not to make problems.
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Someone asked how it could be possible that the owners weren't aware of this. They are based in Arizona, and were responsible for finally calling in the Sheriff.
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One man described to a reporter how he had found the headstone of a family member in the street and a human skull on a dirt pile a few years back. He took photos which he brought to the Sheriff. The officers laughed. 'Of course you'll find skulls in a cemetery.' I can almost understand their reaction. Who, in their right minds, would expect that this could happen?
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Tonight Bill and I went out to dinner. It was after 7 and rush hour had ended. I asked him to please take 127th Street because I wanted to see it for myself. We tried driving up Kostner, except that was blocked off. We retreated to 123rd, back to Pulaski, and up to 127th Street. Bill made a right and immediately pulled into the left hand lane as traffic on the right wasn't moving. Most of the residential streets right there were restricted to residents only. My brother's business is located within spitting distance of the cemetery. His driveway was blocked by police vehicles. I haven't talked to him, but I bet he hasn't opened since Wednesday. When we came near the light outside the cemetery we saw full parking lots on the left and people all over. There was a trooper directing traffic, and allowing people to cross from one side of the street to the other. Most of them were dressed up, talking on cell phones and wiping away tears. On the right side, further up, it seemed as if hundreds were walking the cemetery paths.
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This evening we heard that Babyland had been destroyed and that this might encompass even more than 300 people. Sheriff Dart even commented that it will be months before we know all the damage.
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It's very hard watching all of this, and yet it's like a train wreck. It's even harder not to. It is all we are talking about. Someone said, "I bet some of those people haven't been to the cemetery in 30 years." Maybe not. Some people visit cemeries and some don't. Even so, when you entrust the remains of your loved one's to someone, you don't expect this to happen.

3 comments:

Donna said...

Unbelievable!

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