Graves Violated At Burr Oak Cemetery

Officials found hundreds of desecrated graves and human remains piled at the far end of Burr Oak Cemetery outside Chicago. Chicago Times columnist Dawn Turner Trice has relatives there. She's trying to find out whether the graves of her loved ones are among those violated.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

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Earlier this month at Burr Oak Cemetery, just south of Chicago, officials uncovered what appears to be a grisly conspiracy. Investigators discovered human remains piled at the far end of the burial ground and some 300 desecrated graves. Thousands of people are angry, confused and are desperately demanding answers about their siblings, spouses, grandparents, parents, children.

Dawn Turner Trice, who writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune, has generations of her family buried at Burr Oak. Her family has been unable to find out if the graves of her deceased loved ones are intact. They may not know answers for months and, given the state of the records at the cemetery, they may never know.

If you have a loved one buried at Burr Oak or if you've suffered the desecration of hallowed ground, tell us your story: 800-989-8255, email us, talk@npr.org. And there's a conversation at our Web site. Again, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dawn Turner Trice joins us from our Chicago - from Chicago Public Radio. Nice to have you with us again.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And, well, how did you find out about this?

Ms. TRICE: Well, we were - it's interesting. We were just listening to the news, frankly. And I was a little hesitant about calling my mom because when -as I - we were growing up, my mother would tell these really extravagant stories about her grandmother, my great grandmother. And our family would have these big get-togethers. And after dinner, the women would gather at the dining room table and the men would scatter around the house, and my sister and I would sneak under the table to listen and we'd eavesdrop. And my mother created this woman in Lessie Jennings, who was just larger than life. And so, we were just kind of captivated by her.

And she always said that the hardest drive she ever had to make was the drive to Burr Oak Cemetery to bury her. My great grandmother died in 1965, about eight months after I was born. And at the time, my mother never knew that about 28 years later, she would have to make that drive again to Burr Oak Cemetery to bury her own daughter, my younger sister, the little girl who would sit under the table with me.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so, generations of your family are at Burr Oak and…

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely.

CONAN: How - what is it like? You also wrote in your column that yours is not the kind of family to go out very often to visit those gravesites. Nevertheless, it's a place you think is…

Ms. TRICE: Sacred.

CONAN: Well, yeah, hallowed.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. Yeah, hallowed. Absolutely. I mean, no. We do not - we - our philosophy - my father, my mother always kind of taught us that once a loved one passed on, that person lived in the heart and the mind and even in the stories of the people who remained. And so, we don't go out to the cemetery often to visit. But we understand that a lot of people do. And for those people, it's just - it's such a tragedy. And it really - it kind of hits you in the gut. And whether you had people there at that cemetery or not, the whole city - and I think - and I heard from people from around the country. People really - I mean, this is a story that resonates because it is about memory and love. And I heard so many people say that they felt like they were in mourning a second time because of such heinous act.

CONAN: Violated almost, in a way.

Ms. TRICE: Yes.

CONAN: Just to recap the story, as I understand it: four people at the cemetery have been alleged to have run a conspiracy to sell the same plot of ground over and over and over again.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And this was revisited yesterday. Congressman Bobby Rush held a hearing to listen to dozens of families with loved ones buried in Burr Oak Cemetery. And they were telling their stories of the crimes of digging up bodies and reselling plots and this whole - the whole tragedy.

And they're trying to decide, the officials are trying to decide whether the federal government should get involved in expanding a role to regulate cemeteries and to adopt a minimum set of standards that would be nationwide regarding record-keeping, burials, consumer protection. I mean, just something - whether something could be put in place so that this - I don't know. If you can ever say that it never happens again…

CONAN: Right.

Ms. TRICE: …but, so that there is a closer way to monitor these places.

CONAN: And it is also symbolically important because this particular cemetery, Burr Oak, as you also wrote about, we don't think of cemeteries as part of the civil rights movement, but indeed…

Ms. TRICE: Right.

CONAN: …in a way, it was.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. I mean, for the longest time, Burr Oak was - was one of two places, only two places in the Chicago area where African-Americans could be interred. And that sounds, you know, in 2009 you say that and it sounds…

CONAN: Sounds ridiculous.

Ms. TRICE: It does sound ridiculous. But I mean, and that's one of the reasons why even though the cemetery had fallen on hard times and it wasn't always the best kept place - I mean people had complained about the grounds not being well-tended, some flooding in areas. But people continued to bury their relatives there because there was the history and they had other - they had so many other family members there. And they thought that that was important.

CONAN: And there is - these places are - they're not just cemeteries, they're not just hollowed ground where people come to visit their loved ones. They are recordings, in a way, of our generations. And there are some people there who will - America will never forget.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And when people - as the story broke, there were people who rushed to the cemetery and they brought along their Bibles because that is where they kept the records of the family members, who had been buried when and what year, what plot, where everybody, you know, sometimes - so that the Bible was the guide and the official record-keeping place of all of this information, so they knew - so that even though the cemetery officials themselves did not - apparently the records have been, have not been kept well.

But people there who had family member - who had family - relatives there, I mean they did keep their records and they had a good idea of where their family - their loved ones were.

CONAN: And again, if you have somebody buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or if you've had similar kinds of desecrations in your family history, 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org.

CONAN: And Pete joins us on the line from Coconut Grove in Florida.

PETE (Caller): Yeah. Yeah. Hi. We had a very similar issue down here in South Florida with the Jewish Cemetery, where people were buried in the wrong graves and interred and had - and were reburied. And I am a member of a mixed family. Not personally Jewish but, you know, I - my wife was raised Jewish and this is a very, very serious issue.

I mean, I myself, I mean, if they could just bury me at sea, I'd be happy. But these, you know, I mean, prior to the Civil War, most people in the United States were buried on the family farm.

CONAN: Indeed. And obviously in many religious traditions this is incredibly important. And…

PETE: Yeah.

CONAN: If you think about human history and how much we have discovered from -about our own development, our own cultural development from disinterring the graves of people 10,000, 15,000 years ago.

PETE: This is a horrendous thing to do to people, you know? I mean, I buried my father's ashes in the Indian River in Maryland. But I can still go there and say, this is, you know, where I deposited his ashes, and you know, and honor him in that way.

CONAN: Pete, what was the upshot of what happened there in Florida?

PETE: Well, the - this was up, I believe it was in Southern Broward County. And…

CONAN: Were people indicted? Were charges brought?

PETE: There had been a company that, you know, the original owners of the cemetery that sold it to some other company…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PETE: But I mean they had bones like, you know, thrown out in the woods nearby.

CONAN: Ugh.

PETE: And resold - resold graves. You know? I mean, that's just really a horrendous thing to do.

CONAN: It is. Pete, thanks very much for the call. And I hope that all gets settled.

PETE: Okay.

Ms. TRICE: You know, there was - the panel that I mentioned yesterday, or the hearing that I mentioned, that occurred here yesterday, there was a similar one that occurred in 2002. And it was to investigate crimes at that Florida cemetery as well as the crematory in Georgia. And the two bills that would have set federal guidelines and expanded the role of the Federal Trade Commission failed to garner enough support from lawmakers. So the feeling is that this time maybe something - if something can be done, it will be done.

CONAN: We're talking with Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, with us from Chicago Public Radio, talking about the scandal at Burr Oak Cemetery, where it's been alleged employees ran a racket selling and reselling lots to different families at different times and lost all the records. And at this point nobody knows really who's buried where.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Dawn, at this point is there any idea of how soon this is all going to get sorted out?

Ms. TRICE: No, there isn't. There is an FBI investigation underway that's - that will address the criminal aspect of this. But the governor also has assembled a commission that will look at what reforms can be made, so that this - as I said, this never happens again. And the task force will make recommendations to the Illinois legislature, and then the legislature will take it from that.

But what's complicating this is that it's just not - the law isn't clear. I mean, there are semi-permanent leases on some property. In some places it's legal to lease the lot for, say, 30 years or 60 years. Europeans do it and some states do it. But the thing is that people knew about it, you know? I mean, they know that there's a lease on a property.

In this case, we - you know, there's so much up in the air. I mean, there is also - it's possible to have what's called double-decker graves where you can bury the remains of one person on top of another. But again, it's - so we're trying to tease out state law here to figure out what - I mean, none of - clearly it's only legal if someone knows that this is going on.

CONAN: There's transparency, yeah.

Ms. TRICE: Right. But there's so much that's up in the air. So we don't know when all of this - if it will ever be, you know, settled.

CONAN: Jamal(ph) joins us from Newport News in Virginia.

JAMAL (Caller): Yes. I actually wanted to say, like, it's sad. I'm 25 years old and the last couple of times that I was at Burr Oak Cemetery was probably about two or three years ago, and to find out that my aunt and my great grandmother and my great-great grandmother's graves cannot be found is really disheartening.

And being in the military and serving overseas (unintelligible) it just opens those wounds back up, not only for me but my whole family, because it covers a whole aspect of all of my family, immediate and extended. It's really sad.

CONAN: And do you plan to go back?

JAMAL: Actually, my mom and myself, we have plans to get together, because my family is in Alabama and I'm in Virginia. We have plans actually to get together and go up there, but we don't want to go up there while the crime scene is still being investigated and stuff. I'm following the story on CNN and on every news channel that I can, and it really is disheartening like to the point that I cry sometimes, because why would someone do something like this?

CONAN: It does make you reconsider human nature, doesn't it, sometimes.

JAMAL: It really does. I would rather be, you know, cremated and know that I'm in my family's home rather than be in a cemetery. That is very sacred. For someone to just try and make money off it - what is the world coming to?

Ms. TRICE: Yes. And that's the other heinous part of this, is just, you know, there seems to be at times just no bounds to the cruelty or just - you know, some of the things that people will do to kind of make a buck, and that's - that really kind of shakes your faith a little bit. So…

CONAN: Jamal, thanks very much.

JAMAL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's go next to Gregory. Gregory calling from Chicago.

GREGORY (Caller): Good afternoon, sir. Neal, I have my grandmother buried there. My mother (unintelligible) and my Uncle Roy, who is my mother's older brother went there the next day or so, but it was a crime scene, as it is now, and so we're not allowed onto the grounds to see if my grandmother's grave is intact. She was cremated, so it would be easy for them to, you know, just disperse her ashes. And I should've immediately raced over the hour the news broke and I might have had a chance to see if indeed it was intact.

But I just want to say that with our sort of, you know, Native American and African-American and the European-American roots, we try to be spiritual about these things. And even with that sort of, you know, non-clinging approach to things in life, it is emotionally, it stirs up a depressing emotion inside to know that your loved one's grave could be desecrated like this.

But on a public policy front, I think we should all be grown up to realize that perhaps we have precious land resources and people want to be - have their loved ones buried in particular grave sites of families that have been buried there before and there's limited land and maybe they felt a pressure to just receive these other additional loved ones and they had to ship bodies around and they would make money at the same time.

And so I think the historian that was on National Public Radio, who talked about the history of the American cemetery, stating that the Greeks only use it - use plots for 35 years. this maybe something - I don't know - let's say Congress will look into. But thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, Gregory, thanks for the call.

GREGORY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: I guess those are all issues that we have to consider. Nevertheless, the idea that bodies would just be stacked and body parts and remains just dumped in one end of a burial ground with the disrespect that that suggests, well…

Ms. TRICE: And Neal, there was a section of Burr Oak called Babyland, where babies were interred. And that area was desecrated as well. And so this story just started to snowball and just - you know, one after the other, the discoveries are so grim.

CONAN: Well, I hope your relatives are identified and that everything is okay.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune, joined us today from Chicago Public Radio.

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