Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who should regulate cemeteries?

It is the knee-jerk reaction for a government official. When there is a problem, hold a hearing.

Allow a group of political people to sit in a row with microphones in front of their faces, so they can hear “testimony” from individuals who have suffered. It creates the image that something is being done.

AT THE VERY least, it makes people feel like someone is listening. But is this really the way that anything gets done?

The latest “controversy” to be dealt with in such a manner involves the situation at Burr Oak Cemetery, a historically African-American cemetery in southwest suburban Alsip, where it is suspected that bodies were being dug up so that the land used by the graves could be resold to newly deceased people.

While there is the chance that some of these people were buried at the cemetery under agreements that allowed their bodies to be moved to a mass grave after a few decades had passed, the fact is that nobody seems to know for sure.

Officials investigating the situation say the records at Burr Oak are so bad they really can’t tell who was buried under what terms. And when officials start finding body parts such as bone fragments out in the open, it would appear that the agreement to move to a mass grave was not being kept according to the letter of the law.

IT WOULD SEEM the situation at Burr Oak is a mess. And it would seem that stories emanating from Burr Oak are causing people at other cemeteries to start looking more closely at conditions.

Just this weekend, police began investigating the situation at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens cemetery (also in the south suburbs), where a roughly 10-inch-long bone was found lying on the ground near a burial vault.

All of these stories are providing the motivation for Congress to get involved. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., (whose district includes Burr Oak) headed up a panel on Monday at the Dirksen Federal Building that spent its time trying to look concerned while giving people whose relatives are buried at Burr Oak a chance to tell their tales in public.

Now I’m glad to hear that political people want to be concerned. I’m just not sure what was accomplished with Monday’s hearings, because this strikes me as one of those issues where the federal government is probably the least qualified to do anything to address the problem.

CURRENTLY, THE STATE provides the Illinois comptroller’s office with limited authority to regulate cemeteries. The entity that cuts checks to pay the state’s bills has a few regulators who can impose fines and issue orders if they find cemeteries that are ill kept or otherwise poorly maintained.

When it comes to such instances, we’re usually talking about old graveyards that no longer accept human remains and where the owner either does not properly maintain the grounds, or perhaps so much time has passed that there is legitimate confusion as to who is responsible for keeping the cemetery from turning into a weed field.

The point is that cemetery maintenance is a local issue. It is one that involves people who are actually in the community making sure that the space used for burials does not somehow provide a health threat to the surviving public, and that the deceased’s remains are being accorded the respect they are entitled to.

After all, these were once human beings whose families put them there out of the belief they would have some sort of “eternal rest,” so to speak.

I JUST DON’T see the federal officials answering to people on Capitol Hill as being the best qualified to address the issue.

If anything, this might be an issue where the county governments are the ones best able to provide oversight. After all, they have a sense of being able to look at the “big picture,” while also being close enough to the situation in the communities to sense the local mood.

Yet within Cook County, we have our officials complaining about the cost of the investigations thus far (as of last week, the sheriff’s police said they had already spent $326,000 because of Burr Oak, expected to spend much more, and were already trying to figure out how to get some other government entity to reimburse them for the expense).

That entity is the state, which already has limited oversight authority through the comptroller’s office.

YET WE HAVE a state government complaining about how tight its finances are, and has already managed to show it can’t come up with a balanced budget for the complete fiscal year. Why else will they have to return in January to approve a budget for the rest of Fiscal ’10 – which runs through June 30?

This could very well become one of those areas where the state ought to provide some funding, but will use its financial problems to get out of it – thereby sticking the county with the bill.

In fact, that might be the only logical reason to get the federal government involved in this issue. It is an area where the state and county are likely to battle over who gets stuck with the bill for investigating who did what – and was it criminal in nature, or just venal? But that seems like a poor reason to get the feds involved in a local matter.

In short, this could wind up becoming a classic political situation – everybody wants to appear as though they are concerned about a problem, but they all want someone else to have to deal with it.


1 comment:

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