Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cemeteries Field Worried Calls

Cemetery directors across the Midwest have been bombarded with anxious callers worried that a ghoulish scandal in a suburban Chicago burial ground isn't an isolated incident.
Authorities recently arrested four employees at Burr Oak Cemetery, alleging they dug up and dumped as many as 300 corpses to resell the used burial plots. The gruesome details have unnerved families as far away as Milwaukee and Kansas City, who have then flooded cemetery directors with concerns. So far, no other deception has turned up.
"We've been inundated with visitors trying to find loved ones that are buried here," said Vickey Hand, president of Washington Memory Gardens outside Chicago. "People are walking in here, one after the other, who haven't been here in 40 or 50 years, with this look of apprehension on their face."
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart learned of the alleged grave-reselling scheme about two months ago, when Perpetua Inc., the Arizona-based owner of Burr Oak, saying that the company was concerned about financial irregularities there, contacted his office.
Sheriff Dart said that when detectives initially went to the cemetery, they discovered a pile of bones from more than 100 bodies decomposing above ground in a fenced, overgrown area. He said the corpses were dug up so that their plots could be reused. He estimates the scheme generated about $250,000.
Burr Oak, founded nearly a century ago, was one of the first predominantly African-American cemeteries in the Chicago area. Among the historic figures buried there are civil-rights icon Emmett Till, blues legend Dinah Washington and heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles.
On Friday, sheriff's deputies continued to scour four sections of the cemetery, which holds about 100,000 graves. They are searching for additional remains and trying to match discarded headstones to burial plots. Disintegrating and incomplete interment records and maps have slowed the process.
Since news about the cemetery broke, Sheriff Dart said he has been flooded with more than 55,000 requests from families looking for information about loved ones buried there. He said he isn't optimistic all the human remains will be identified.
"That will be very, very difficult," Sheriff Dart said Friday. He compared the process to identifying victims of a plane crash, but without the passenger manifest. "We don't even know who the universe of people are."
Illinois lawmakers this week considered additional regulation to require the exact location of interments on death certificates. But the legislative session expired before any action was taken.
Elsewhere in the Midwest, a Detroit Memory Gardens employee said there has been a small influx of people who have come by to inspect their family plots. In St. Louis, Richard Lay of the Bellefontaine Cemetery said he has "heard a couple of comments that were joking in an offhand way, and I took it offensively," he said. "There are a lot of upset families, and I take it very seriously."
Harvey Lapin, general counsel of the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association, said cemetery owners around the state have been peppered with calls from different parts of the country asking, "You're not doing anything like this, are you?"
Linzay Kelly, an amateur genealogist in Houston with relatives buried in Burr Oak, said he has been concerned that something like this might happen for some time.
"There's just a panic out there that this isn't the only place this was happening," said Mr. Kelly, who has unsuccessfully tried to track down the graves of several family members who died in the 1940s and were buried in Illinois. "I've been to cemeteries where entire sections aren't there. It makes you suspicious."
Paula Everett, president of Mount Greenwood Cemetery, which isn't far from Burr Oak, said she has received about 150 calls and visits from anxious relatives since the news broke on July 8. "I can understand why people are nervous," she said. "I tell them to come down, we have every record back to day one in 1879."
Information provided by Douglas Belkin and Carrie Porter from the Wall Street Journal.

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