Saturday, August 8, 2009

Burr Oak moves to new phase – one where officials want problem to “go away”

It has been just over a month since Burr Oak Cemetery in southwest suburban Alsip became a national embarrassment to Chicago, and pretty soon officials are going to want this issue to disappear from the public mindset.

That is the reality of the situation at the predominantly African-American cemetery where it appears bodies were being dug up and put in a mass grave without the knowledge of loved ones – all so that the plots of land used for graves could be resold to people who had departed this Earth more recently.

THE PAST WEEKS have been filled with politicians posturing about what a tragedy the situation is and how they want to use their authority to ensure that nothing like this ever happens anywhere else, or again.

Law enforcement types have conducted various investigations, and it seems that four people are going to have to spend the next couple of years facing criminal charges for their work at the cemetery.

They likely also will get hit with civil lawsuits that ensure even if they manage to stay out of prison, they will be bankrupt financially by the time all this is resolved.

But the time when this issue will be one that politicians want to hear about is just about over. It is about to shift into a mode where people would rather this story disappear from their consciousness.

IN SHORT, THE “15 minutes” of Burr Oak are over.

At least that is how I interpret the decision of the Cook County Sheriff’s police to pull their investigators out of the cemetery – where they have been every day (sometimes with Sheriff Tom Dart himself grabbing a shovel and helping to dig in) since this fiasco became known.

Dart said on Friday that their constant monitoring of the cemetery and searching through a vacant lot on the cemetery grounds have uncovered about 1,200 items that can be used as evidence in any upcoming criminal trials.

By items, we’re talking about bone fragments and headstone remains primarily. In short, the sheriff’s police and state’s attorney’s office has enough physical evidence to support whatever case they wind up bringing in court.

FOR THOSE PEOPLE who thought that all of the moved bodies were somehow going to magically be removed from that vacant lot and restored to a gravesite, it’s not going to happen.

The sheriff’s police says that such an effort would be way too strenuous and expensive – along with potentially disrespectful to the bodies that remain buried in anonymity.

Don’t underestimate the expense factor. It has been a concern of Cook County politicians, who have kept watch of it constantly.

When the county board last met in mid-July, Dart told officials his office had been forced to spend about $326,000 because of the cemetery investigation. By now, he says that figure is up to about $400,000. This bill would keep rising indefinitely unless someone put a stop to the affair.

TO TRULY TRY to figure out who every single piece of human remains once belonged to would be significantly more expensive. And considering that we’re in an economic era where state and federal governments are imposing cuts in the amount of aid they’re providing to lower-level governments, there’s a good chance that Cook County will get stuck with a significant portion of this expense.

That comes even though politicians pontificate about wanting the state or the feds to pay the bills for this mess.

So this is shifting from a story about people wanting to know for sure what happened to their loved ones, to trying to find enough evidence to convict four people – and if it turns out that one or two of them will wind up doing time in prison, that will be sufficient to appease the politicians and possibly the masses who have been appalled to learn that something like this could happen at any cemetery (but are probably relieved to learn it didn’t happen at the graveyards where their loved ones are buried).

Which means it’s going to be just a matter of a little time before the people who want straight answers about their Uncle Lou or great-Aunt Bessie will start to be viewed by the establishment as pains in the rear.

BECAUSE THEY’RE GOING to want answers that no one will ever be able to provide.

Officials have said it is not financially practical to think that DNA tests could be performed on all the human remains uncovered to positively identify them.

Considering that one would need samples to match the remains up against, I’d wonder how many people have some sort of DNA swath of their long-deceased relatives. Not many.

So it appears that political people are now talking about erecting some sort of monument or other memorial for the vacant lot – one that indicates there are many unknown dead lying there.

SOME MIGHT SAY it’s like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, a tribute to those who lose their identity due to the horrors of war. But I can’t help but see such a monument as being so typical.

For the fact is that Burr Oak is predominantly African-American because it was once the “colored” cemetery for the Chicago area, one of the few graveyards that would accept black people.

To many people of that past era, the Bronzeville neighborhood was merely “the black belt” where the masses lived in a single place so that the rest of Chicago wouldn’t have to pay them any mind.

My point is that many of these older graves that were desecrated were of people who were ignored by Chicago society as a whole during their lives. Now, they’ve been turned in death into one great big anonymous grave.


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