Sunday, July 12, 2009
"See what your greed for money has done?" More thoughts on Woody Guthrie
The closing line of Woody's song "1913 Massacre" seems a perfect response to this story by Susan Saulny from the July 10 NY Times:
A Day of Searching, Anger and Renewed Grief in a Desecrated Illinois Cemetery
By SUSAN SAULNY
Published: July 10, 2009
ALSIP, Ill. — They arrived in tears, showing outrage and confusion, generations of a family together, or lonely, widowed spouses and old friends wandering by themselves.
Hundreds of people combed the rows of an old, historically black cemetery in this town south of Chicago on Friday, hoping that their loved ones were not among those corpses — at least 300 discovered so far, county officials say — that had been dug up and tossed into a heap at the far end of the grounds. The authorities are describing the mass disinterment as a ghoulish moneymaking scheme to resell plots.
On Wednesday, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart of Cook County said detectives had discovered exposed human remains in a remote, fenced-off part of Burr Oak Cemetery, which was still holding funerals on Friday in an atmosphere that grew more morbid and chaotic as the day went on.
Late Friday, Sheriff Dart announced that investigators had found exposed human remains in another area of Burr Oak. The entire cemetery was closed and declared a crime scene.
County prosecutors have charged four current and former cemetery workers, including the cemetery manager, with dismemberment of human bodies, felony charges that carry 6 to 30 years in prison on conviction.
Mr. Dart said investigators had been tipped off to the scheme by the cemetery’s owner, Perpetua Inc., which is based in Tucson and is cooperating with the investigation.
At a news conference at the cemetery, the sheriff said he suspected that irregularities with burials went back at least four years but could stretch back much further and involve many more bodies than have been currently counted.
“This is going to be a very long process,” he said of the forensic work that is beginning to identify the discarded remains.
Many notable African Americans are among the thousands of people buried at Burr Oak, including Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose torture and lynching in 1955 in Mississippi helped spark the civil rights movement. While Emmett Till’s remains were undisturbed, members of his family struggled for strength Friday after learning that his original coffin, the one in which his mutilated body had been exposed for viewing and photographs, photographs that became part of the pictorial record of the civil rights movement, had been left to rot in a garbage-strewn shed and house rats and raccoons.
“He’s been victimized again,” said Simeon Wright, 66, a cousin. “Greed will take you to the lowest of the low.”
Emmett Till’s body was exhumed in 2005 and reburied in a different coffin after a reinvestigation of his murder. Members of the family said the original coffin had been entrusted for preservation to the cemetery because it agreed to build an Emmett Till memorial. Burr Oak was also responsible for collecting donations for the memorial, but the family said the money had never been accounted for.
“While Emmett Till may be one of the most well-known persons laid to rest at Burr Oak,” another cousin, Ollie Gordon, said on Friday, “the family recognizes the pain that all families are experiencing at this time.”
County officials estimated that since Wednesday night, almost 2,000 people had streamed through the cemetery’s gates looking for answers. The sheriff’s office set up an impromptu center for the families and has investigators in a mobile command unit inside the cemetery gathering information from people as they discover what has happened at their particular plots.
Shanelle Woods, 25, discovered a hole in the ground at her mother-in-law’s grave where the headstone used to be.
“Mother’s gone!” Ms. Woods sobbed. “It’s all dug up.”
While Ms. Woods’s sister-in-law spoke with investigators, she added, “It’s just not fair to us or anyone else. You can look down and see a hole. It doesn’t make any sense. It feels like we’re having a whole other funeral today.”
Harrison Mack, 55, arrived at Burr Oak with a map in hand and with four family members to start canvassing the grave sites of aunts and uncles, a grandmother and a grandfather.
“I am highly upset because our dead are not resting in peace,” Mr. Mack said. “The hurting part is that there’s no closure. And how long will this go on, this investigation? In the meantime we have to do our best to maintain our composure.”
Willidean Wayne, 68, was looking for the grave of her grandmother Dorothy Millerton.
Ms. Wayne and family members split up for the task, trudging through muddy, untidy rows of graves, their eyes cast down, frantically reading names.
Ms. Millerton was buried in 1977, and Ms. Wayne could not find her headstone in the area where she had been laid to rest.
“Nothing to do but keep looking and hope she’s resting in peace,” she said.
Here's an early (1961) recording of Bob Dylan singing "1913 Massacre."