Outside Chicago, a Grim Tale of Unearthed Graves

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Amanda Rivkin / Polaris

Headstones lie beside freshly disinterred graves at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill.

The first report, that 50 or so graves had been disturbed at the historic Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. — the final resting place of civil rights icon Emmett Till and singer Dinah Washington — was grotesque. But by week's end, the macabre tally had grown: nearly 300 graves, possibly more, were destroyed in an apparent grave-resale scheme that took in an as-yet-unknown amount of money. Now questions remain as to how this scandal happened and what must be done to prevent a recurrence.

Investigators began piecing together details in late May, when the owner of a burial plot arrived at the administrative office of the cemetery, in the village of Alsip (pop. 18,803), about a half-hour drive south of Chicago. "Someone else is in my loved one's grave," the plot's owner told the cemetery office's attendant, according to authorities. The burial plot's deed didn't match the headstone. The regular manager had recently been relieved of her duties amid allegations of theft, so the attendant began searching for records, only to find that they were missing. Then, according to court documents, a cemetery groundskeeper told administrators that while digging in a remote section of the cemetery covered with weeds and high soil, he'd discovered human remains. The cemetery's administrators called the authorities.

Here is what they've gleaned so far: Over a period of time that remains undetermined, the cemetery manager allegedly took payments, often in cash, from customers who believed they were buying new burial plots. In fact, authorities say, the manager ordered groundskeepers to unearth the coffins that were already buried in these plots. They were placed on trucks and disposed of in a remote section of the cemetery, often referred to as the "dump area," according to court documents. Bones often fell onto the roadway. Other times, groundskeepers would "double stack" human remains within a single, unmarked grave in the secluded part of the cemetery. One employee told investigators that sometimes a new cement liner would be brought to a burial plot and lowered onto the pre-existing one. Then a coffin containing a newly deceased person would be buried there. Markers and headstones were rearranged, not always over the corpses, according to court documents. But to the customers who had purchased the new plots, nothing seemed amiss.

Late Wednesday, investigators grimly announced that at least 50 graves had been disturbed. Four of the cemetery's employees, including its former manager, were swiftly arrested on an assortment of charges, including dismembering a human body. The most obvious motive was simple greed. Space was not an issue: there are still vast stretches of unused land at the cemetery, which opened in the 1950s and is predominantly African American.

In recent days, thousands of people from across the region have arrived at the cemetery, often in the rain, tearfully walking across what is effectively the grimmest of crime scenes. Some wore T shirts bearing the faces of deceased relatives. Others carried funeral pamphlets on which they'd long ago made notations of the spot on the cemetery's grounds they believed their relatives were buried: under an oak tree or along the side of the road.

Among the cemetery's notable inhabitants is Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Till's remains were exhumed during a 2005 investigation into his death and reburied in another coffin. The original coffin was to be saved for a memorial. Instead, it was found this week in a cemetery garage, surrounded by trash, filled with possums. "For those who did this, take up a casket and crushed it, there remains a very special place in hell for them,"said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

What lessons should be gleaned from this case? Paramount is the need for regulation that the death industry has fiercely resisted. Tom Dart, sheriff of Cook County, which includes Chicago and Alsip, observes that manicurists and barbers must endure more regulatory hurdles than most cemetery operators, including its managers and groundskeepers. Illinois, like many other states, is empowered to protect only the money that families invest in burial lots — fees intended for cemeteries' long-term maintenance. In many states, there is no single agency, government or independent, that keeps up-to-date records of how many human bodies are buried or cremated on a cemetery's grounds or the names of the buried. It isn't even clear how many plots have been sold at Burr Oak; on Saturday, officials put the figure at roughly 100,000. Many of the records — including maps to eight of the cemetery's 10 sections — appear to have been intentionally destroyed. There is also no standard process of checking the backgrounds of cemetery workers.

The lawsuits that are already mounting against the cemetery's owner, identified in court documents as Perpetua Inc., may stimulate some serious discussion about regulation. But that does nothing to quell the concerns of people who still don't know the whereabouts of their relatives' remains. "There's a strong element of trust you have with cemetery owners," Dart says. "But this case is beyond belief. I've never had anything like it."