* ABC7’s Ben Bradley and Charles Thomas are patiently sniffing out a story about the grisly Burr Oak Cemetery scandal that could turn into a bombshell.
First, the necessary background…
Three gravediggers and a cemetery manager unearthed hundreds of corpses from a historic black cemetery south of Chicago, dumping some in a weeded area and double-stacking others in existing graves, in an elaborate scheme to resell the plots, authorities said [on July 9th]. All four were charged with felonies.
* Now, let’s turn to ABC7’s series. This one is from Ben Bradley…
The man who was selected to oversee the facility temporarily says, while problems at Burr Oak are bad, things are not as dire as he feared. […]
As ABC7 Chicago first reported Thursday, early fears that double burials were commonplace at the cemetery were chalked up to a lack of understanding at how cemeteries operate. One person said Friday that, while burying two strangers in one plot is not the standard, it does happen in gravesites where families only purchased so-called “term graves.” Those do exist at Burr Oak. The problem is that a lot of the contracts and records that might indicate the nature of the burial have not been located. […]
“There are areas of concern, but the greater majority of the cemetery looked pretty good and probably does not have a problem. Where the crimes existed, to what extent, we’re still sorting all of that out,” said [executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago] Roman Szabelski, the Burr Oak Cemetery court-appointed operator.
What has happened at Burr Oak Cemetery may seem like an unthinkable crime. But in some historically African-American burial grounds moving remains from plots was part of the purchase agreement. […]
When the city’s African-American population exploded during the mid 20th century’s great migration, the Jim Crow graveyards that also included Burr Oak in Alsip sold hundreds of thousands of less expensive, temporary plots called ’select singles.’ At the ends of their terms, it’s agreed the graves can be re-opened and the bodies sometimes moved to mass, unmarked burial sites on the properties.
A funeral industry source told ABC7 that most of the plots at Burr Oak Cemetery are outside the perpetual care section and that digging into old graves and moving remains would not be an unusual occurrence there or at most other black cemeteries.
Here’s part of another Bradley story from today. This one is an interview of the cemetery company’s owners and references supportive comments made by the Archdioese’s Szabelski…
At the conclusion of the ABC 7 interview Saturday morning the Perpetua team said it’s conceivable to them that no graves were dug-up and human remains discarded to make room for an off-the-books burial operation as the Sheriff and prosecutors contend. “My general sense [is that] most loved ones have not been disturbed,” Foushee said.
On Friday, new court-appointed operator of Burr Oak Roman Szabelski also said he thinks the majority of graves at the cemetery were not tampered with. Sheriff Dart has said he believes as many 300 graves may have been desecrated.
CNN carried this Bradly story yesterday…
MAYOR PATRICK KITCHING, ALSIP, ILLINOIS: Remember, a cemetery is not required to hold that space forever. So at some point, some bones were probably legally disinterred. What they do with them, there’s no law that regulates that.
And this one is from CBS2…
[Executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago Roman Szabelski] said things such as double-deck graves and headstone removal, while not routine, are not unusual or necessarily criminal
* The bottom line is that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart might have dug into a mass, double-decked “pauper’s grave” and assumed the worst. Also, cemeteries will sometimes bury tombstones which have errors on them in on-site dumps, which may account for some of those discoveries, as well as headstones from the “term” burials that expired.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that Burr Oak was terribly managed. It also seems likely that some financial crimes may have been committed. There could have even been a grave-reselling scheme.
But was the situation at the cemetery as mind-blowingly horrific and disgustingly widespread as has been reported? Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart appears totally convinced that he’s right. And he may very well be.
Still, it looks like everybody needs to take a very deep breath and allow the investigation to proceed. From what I know about him, Szabelski appears to be the right person for this job.
I may have more on this story later.