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Politicians and investigators are trying to sort out a scandal at an historically black cemetery in suburban Chicago. The investigators hope to identify the remains of as many as 300 bodies that were allegedly dug up at the Burr Oak Cemetery so that the plots could be resold. And now the governor of Illinois says he supports tougher regulations for cemeteries. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: The gruesome details about dumped bodies at Burr Oak Cemetery prompted Illinois lawmakers to propose tough standards for a largely unregulated industry. Lawmakers didn't take any action as they met to consider the state's budget last night. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said there should be no haphazard rush, but he told lawmakers the state agency which regulates funeral directors should also oversee cemeteries.
Governor PAT QUINN (Democrat, Illinois): To make sure they're not cheating the public or in anyway defiling the bodies of those who are buried in a cemetery.
CORLEY: Burr Oak's out-of-state owner hasn't made an appearance since the investigation into the scandal began. In a press release yesterday, Melvin Bryant said he nothing to do with the alleged wrongdoing, has family members buried at the cemetery, and feels sorry for other families wondering about their loved ones' remains.
Now a court appointed administrator will oversee the day-to-day operations at Burr Oak. For now, it remains closed, but families continue to show up. Pauline Powell says her husband died in 1987 and she and her daughter had tried to check on his gravesite several months before the grave-selling scandal became public.
Ms. PAULINE POWELL: And we walked in. I told him I had lost, you know, where he was at, you know, could they tell me where his grave was at. They didn't let us go back to his grave or anything. Then we hear this. And I told my daughter, I said, God forbid, they might've been digging him up then.
CORLEY: More than 100,000 people are buried at Burr Oak. Investigators have been taking digital pictures of each grave and entering them into a searchable database. FBI spokesman Ross Rice says evidence teams are also cataloguing the human remains that were dumped at the cemetery. He says there's little prospect of using DNA evidence or thermal imaging to help identify them.
Mr. ROSS RICE (FBI): There's no need for thermal imaging here. Thermal imaging is something that's used when you're looking for an intact body that may have been buried within a short period of time. We're talking about human remains, in most cases just bones or bone fragments that have been dumped in a field.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says more than 55,000 requests for assistance have poured into his office. At a press conference this week, Dart says it's difficult to make identifications because many of the gravesites are unmarked and the records at Burr Oak are in a total shambles. The sheriff showed off an extreme example: an old file cabinet stuffed with index cards that were found in the basement of one of the cemetery's office buildings.
Sheriff TOM DART (Cook County, Illinois): The drawers you can't open. The cards are completely encased in mold and mildew, and actually they have congealed into one piece of paper. And there is probably very little, if any, way we're ever going to be able to separate that and start being able to identify what's in those.
CORLEY: Four former Burr Oak workers are accused of digging up bodies and reselling the plots. Sheriff Dart says he knows that's not enough to quiet the anger and despair of some of the families of those buried at the cemetery.
Sheriff DART: We have tried everything to try to get closure and hope to some of these people and to tell them that just because you weren't able to find your specific headstone, do not despair. Because of the record-keeping, it could be that the grave was one over or two over.
CORLEY: But the sheriff says in this case of massive grave desecration, it's unlikely that everyone's questions will be answered.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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