Macabre burial practices uncovered in heartland of America
By Ray Hanania
(Alsip, Illinois July 11, 2009) A cemetery that is the resting place for many famous African Americans was turned into a recycling center for bodies that operators allegedly used to generate profits and police have declared “a major crime scene.”
Four of the operators of Burr Oak Cemetery, located in Alsip, a suburb 12 miles southwest of Chicago, have been jailed and are awaiting charges involving the horrific crime of improperly disposing of dead bodies and theft of funds.
Thousands of families whose relatives are buried in the historic cemetery have been flocking there to determine if the remains of their loved ones were improperly disposed of in mass graves, garbage piles or stacked on top and under other bodies.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said that most families may never know if their relatives are in fact buried under tombstones that bear their names, or if they were moved to make room for newly dead in a scheme the four suspects are charged with using for increased profits.
Witnesses report that bones are strewn throughout dirt piles, old buildings, and fields. A section set aside for the burial of babies who died either just after birth or in their infancy cannot be located, officials said.
“I found bones out there, I found individuals wandering aimlessly around” who
also found bones and other things, Dart told reporters. Dart declared the cemetery a crime scene and police and members of the local and state coroner’s offices have been sifting through remains at the site.
“I want to know where my mother, my father, my grandfather and my grandmother are buried,” one distraught woman screamed as relatives and friends tried to comfort her. “Where are they?”
The four suspects are being held without bond. It is believed they stacked bodies, burying newly dead atop others that had long been buried at the cemetery. Among the dead buried at the cemetery include blues singer Dinah Washington and Emmitt Till, the young boy whose lynching in the 1950s sparked the American civil rights movement.
Till, who was only 14, was murdered in 1955 after he reportedly “whistled” at a white woman while visiting a relative in Mississippi. He was originally from Chicago where his remains were returned and buried at Burr Oak Cemetery. More than 100,000 people visited Till’s open, glass-covered casket during a four-day public funeral. His death helped spark the civil rights movement to win freedoms for African Americans who were victimized by slavery, segregation and dual laws that denied them equal rights.
In 2005, Till’s body was exhumed as a part of an effort to finally bring his killers to justice more than a half century later. His casket was replaced with a new one. The old casket, which was to be put in a museum recognizing civil rights history, was found strewn in a pile of rubble in a broken-down shack filled with feces and a small family of possums.
Three former gravediggers and the cemetery’s manager made about $300,000 in the scheme that stretched back at least four years, officials said. The four sold existing deeds and burial plots and then allegedly dug up hundreds of corpses and either dumped them in a weeded, vacant area of the cemetery, which authorities labeled a crime scene, or double-stacked them in graves.
The four suspects are former cemetery manager Carolyn Towns, 49; Keith Nicks, 45; Terrence Nicks, 39; and Maurice Dailey, 61. All are African American.
Dart was joined by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a civil rights leader who was at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Jackson called the horror scene and scene “a heartless act.”
“This is a scam of depth and breadth that must be dealt with,” said Jackson, who noted he is concerned that money raised for a memorial to Emmitt Till is unaccounted for and cannot be found.
“A man was here who had 75 family members buried here. Another has 65 family members here. The investigation cannot stop with the four or five people who are involved. … It is difficult to get one’s arms around the depth and breadth of the pain here. When someone dies it has its own trauma. Then buried and attempt to get closer. Double closure in this graveyard thievery in this magnitude is very difficult for us to grapple with.”
Jackson added, “How did the people who did this sleep at night. They scoped the territory. When the families left they would at night go to work. These people actually planned and plotted the scene. The investigation must leave no stone unturned.”
Dart said that record keeping on where bodies were originally buried was either incomplete or non-existent, adding he believes records were destroyed. He said more than 2,000 families have come to the cemetery reporting head stones have been replaced or moved, the ground at their relative’s grave sites moved or changed. Headstones from past burials were found strewn in nearby fields on the cemetery grounds.
“This is a long process and we are telling people do not despair,” Dart said. “This is an ongoing criminal investigation. I don’t know what to say about the families. They are going through horrific grief. I can’t tell you how difficult this has been for everyone.”
Dart said two burials were planned even as police were at the scene investigating. They discovered that those burials were being planned in the wrong locations.
Dart and Jackson said they are unsure how many bodies may or may not be missing, but they said that they believe that money was taken for services not rendered. Burials were not delivered as promised.
“We cannot rule out any area of the cemetery as being definitely clear and outside of criminal activity. But, we are coming across areas of the cemetery where we did not think there were issues and we find there are issues,” Dart said. He said the suspects are either being dishonest or can’t remember details that might help police define the scope of the crimes,” Dart said.
Jackson said he is touched personally by this as he was the same age as Emmitt Till and that the Till murder moved African Americans and others around the country to stand-up to the racist policies of the 1940s and 1950s.
Jackson said everyone was moved by the Till murder to stand up and refuse to obey segregation laws. Among those, he said, was Rosa Parks, whose refusal to sit on the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama several months after the Till killing, sparked the protests that spread throughout the south and the nation.
“This is very painful for everyone,” Jackson said. “We have to find the truth.”
(Ray Hanania is the 2009 recipient of the M.T. Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award and a morning Chicago radio talk show host. he can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com.)