Study suggests too many bodies buried at Burr Oak
Thousands more people may be buried at a historic black cemetery in a Chicago suburb than the land can hold, according to a study obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
The study suggests that the practice of stacking caskets on top of each other or simply discarding remains was more common at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip than anyone suspected, law enforcement officials said.
The Cook County Sheriff's Police study, obtained by The Associated Press after filing a Freedom of Information request with the sheriff's department, comes six months after the department charged four former workers with taking part in a scheme in which they allegedly dug up graves and resold burial plots.
According to the study, records indicate between 140,190 and 147,568 people are buried at Burr Oak, while an analysis of maps of the property reveal the maximum number of graves the cemetery can hold is about 138,000.
"No one had their arms around how bad this problem was," said Sheriff Tom Dart. He said the study underlined a point he had been making for months and had reiterated in December when the cemetery revealed that since burials resumed a handful of remains had been found in spots where nobody knew people were buried.
"You need to stop," he said of his advice to the cemetery. "We can't keep going like this."
Investigators say there may be even more people buried at Burr Oak than the study suggest because there are cemetery journals recording thousands of deceased buried at the cemetery.
"We believe it is going to be multiple thousands of people (buried) in excess of what it can possibly hold," said Jack Steed, the department's director of financial crimes.
Steed said 138,000-capacity estimate is based on a review by the county assessor's office of the entire 150-acre cemetery -- including areas that do not appear to have been used for graves. Discarded vaults and human bones were found in one area about the size of three football fields.
"It looks like there is open space and if there is open space, what happened to the other people who bought spots?" he asked.
Howard Korenthal, the independent chief operating officer who is overseeing daily operations at Burr Oak, said he had not seen the report and did not know how it might affect efforts by the cemetery owner, Perpetua-Burr Oak Holdings of Illinois, to sell the cemetery.
"I am not commenting on any of this," he said.
But the report raises questions about efforts by Perpetua, which has filed for bankruptcy, to sell Burr Oak as a "working cemetery" that still has room for more graves.
Korenthal would not disclose how much space is available or address the study's conclusions.
Steed acknowledges that the capacity is based on the assumption that one person is buried in each plot. Records indicate that some plots were legally designed to hold more than one person -- such as those for a husband and wife -- but that an analysis of the records shows that practice was not widespread.
What's more, he said, investigators believe that there are thousands of burial records that have not yet been analyzed or were destroyed.
The study does not address how many remains were moved as part of the alleged scheme involving four former employees. Since the workers were arrested in October, Dart has said investigators estimate that 300 graves were dug up, even while saying that the shoddy record keeping made it impossible to say if that number was accurate. He said the investigation was continuing.
In the days after the workers were arrested, authorities found record books with missing or moldy pages, disintegrated file cards stuffed in rusty cabinets and even a draw where animals had woven together tufts of gray fur and shreds of paper records to make a nest.
The study, dated Dec. 18, 2009, was completed days after Korenthal and other officials announced that human remains had been found in some instance when they tried to bury someone else.
At the time, Korenthal said workers had twice found caskets and once found a human bone when they were preparing sites for burial. That revelation prompted the sheriff's department to recommend Burr Oak halt further burials.
But burials have continued, and Korenthal said workers have not found any more remains.
"The Burr Oak Cemetery records were a mess," according to the study that cited instances in which some cards were "unreadable" and others contained misspellings. The records also sometimes were in direct conflict with each other, including some cases where the names of the same people were spelled differently on different burial cards and with different dates of death.
There also were instances when the records were vague, as with one man who was listed as "about" 27 years old. Or they made no sense at all, as with the card for one man that listed the deceased as "left leg of Johnson, Cornelius" but does not answer such questions as whether Johnson was buried somewhere else in the cemetery or even dead.