BC-CEMETERYSCANDAL:TB — national (750 words)
New team at Burr Oak hopes to turn around troubled cemetery
By Becky Schlikerman
CHICAGO — When Patricia Brown Holmes was a teenager, visiting Burr Oak Cemetery and loved ones resting there meant you donned your Sunday best.
That was decades ago, when the cemetery was “considered chi-chi and frou-frou,” she said. Now as the court-appointed trustee overseeing the overhaul of the beleaguered cemetery, Holmes has a clear vision in mind.
“I’d like it to go back to the days of old,” she said recently at the cemetery near Alsip.
Holmes officially took over as trustee in September and brought in new managers to oversee the historic African-American cemetery marred by a grisly grave-reselling scandal uncovered in 2009. Long-term plans for the cemetery include upgraded facilities, improved technology and eventually a memorial to those whose graves were desecrated.
The biggest challenge, though, will be restoring the cemetery’s reputation.
“Unfortunately, Burr Oak’s reputation has really been tarnished because of what has taken place. People are saying they don’t want to be buried there,” said the Rev. Isaac Jackson, who has at least 20 relatives buried at Burr Oak.
Carolyn Towns, who authorities said was the ringleader of the macabre scheme, pleaded guilty and was given a 12-year prison sentence, which she began serving last month. She was one of four cemetery employees charged two years ago after authorities alleged that they were reselling graves and dumping hundreds of old remains in an abandoned, weed-covered lot. Backhoe operator Maurice Dailey, foreman Keith Nicks and dump truck operator Terrence Nicks still are awaiting trial.
Holmes was appointed to oversee the trust that now owns the cemetery after a bankruptcy settlement by the cemetery’s former owners, Perpetua Holdings of Illinois Inc. She quickly tapped the Carter family, owners of Restvale Cemetery and co-owners of Cedar Park Cemetery, to manage Burr Oak.
“He has a stellar reputation,” Holmes said of family patriarch Willie Carter, who began his career as a gravedigger in the 1950s.
The Carters, who include sons Kevin, Keith and Michael, know it will be a difficult to get the cemetery back on track after years of mismanagement.
“It’s a challenge, but we’re coming on with knowledge of the business,” Kevin Carter said.
Because the Carters and Holmes have been working at Burr Oak for only about three months, they said they’re still just getting their bearings.
Detailed plans haven’t been made, but Holmes knows the cemetery needs major upgrades.
That includes modernizing or rebuilding the office and reception area that is now partially housed in a trailer made up as a conference room. The roads, sewers and plumbing all need upgrades as well.
“This is not something that can change in a day,” Holmes said.
Holmes eventually would like to add an electronic kiosk that would allow visitors to locate each grave, including historic figures such as Emmett Till, blues legend Dinah Washington and heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles.
Eventually, as part of the bankruptcy agreement, there will be a memorial built to honor those affected by the desecration.
Remains found by authorities will be reburied at Burr Oak once the criminal cases are complete, said Cook County sheriff’s police Detective Jason Moran, the lead investigator in the criminal case.
In the meantime, the Carters have begun to transform the cemetery. They’ve done some basic landscaping and smoothed the bumpy ground. They’ve also dug around gravestones that, flush to the ground, had been covered by grass.
Donetta Newman, whose father is interred at Burr Oak, said she’s pleased to know changes are coming to the beleaguered cemetery, and she already sees a difference.
“It’s a lot cleaner,” she said. “The overall condition of the cemetery appears to be better.”
The Carters hope a professional operation run honestly will turn things around.
“Just like bad news spreads, good news spread,” Keith Carter said.
“We’re going to run it in a very sensitive and respectful manner,” Holmes added.
The Carters have been briefed by the Cook County sheriff’s police and by longtime Burr Oak employees about what they may find.
Some of the issues include shoddy record-keeping or missing records and sloppy placement of gravestones, which complicates the placement of other graves, Moran said. And there are certain sections of the cemetery closed to new burials because there were so many undocumented burials and unreliable records, he said.
“We cannot dig up the entire cemetery and positively identify every deceased person that has been buried there,” Moran said. “My heart goes out to the families that have loved ones buried at Burr Oak only because there’s always that doubt for them. No one will ever know 100 percent what happened at Burr Oak cemetery.”
(c)2011 the Chicago Tribune
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CEMETERYSCANDAL