New Burr Oak Cemetery Monument Dedicated

Officials hope new memorial signals a new start after cemetery scandal

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    NEWSLETTERS

    8/29/2014: Officials hope new memorial signals a new start after cemetery scandal. NBC 5's Phil Rogers reports. (Published Friday, Aug 29, 2014)

    What a difference a few years make.

    Friday morning, five years after the crimes at Burr Oak Cemetery shocked America, the cemetery dedicated a memorial to the tragedy, a de-facto coming-out party, with a heavy dose of hope for the future.

    "You know, I can't believe this is the same place we were in five years ago," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, noting that the crimes of Burr Oak took his investigators into totally uncharted territory.

    "This was something that we had no playbook for," he said. "There was no one here to guide us on it. This has never happened since, and I hope it never will."

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    Sheriff Tom Dart reacts to the 12-year sentence for Carolyn Towns, the mastermind behind an off-the-books burial scheme at Burr Oak Cemetery. (Published Friday, Jul 8, 2011)

    What started as an investigation into financial improprieties grew into ghastly allegations that Burr Oak employees had dug up some 300 graves, reselling the plots and scattering bones in an open field. The alleged ringleader of the plot, Carolyn Towns, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and is serving a 12 year sentence. Three others are awaiting trial.

    The alleged crimes shocked African-American families who had been burying loved ones at Burr Oak for generations.

    "This wasn't just some plot of land somewhere that had criminal issues," Dart said. "This was holy ground!"

    Indeed, as the Burr Oak Memorial was unveiled Friday, Velma Washington Kirby looked on from the sidelines, clutching a picture of her mother who was buried at Burr Oak in 1976.

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    "We're going to keep our eye on it now," she said. "Somebody dropped the ball, and now we're going to make sure -- all hands on deck!"

    Former Judge Patricia Brown Holmes had the unenviable job of overseeing the transformation.

    "This was a mess, a terrible mess," she remembered. "We just managed it. We managed it down to the penny."

    Appointed trustee over Burr Oak by Gov. Pat Quinn, it was Holmes' job to pay off the bills, and bring the cemetery into habitable, and marketable condition.

    "There was a time I thought, 'What did I get myself into?'" Holmes joked. But she hailed a staff which had helped transform the one-time crime scene, into what is now a working enterprise.

    Indeed, an open field now stands in the acreage where FBI agents once sifted dirt for human remains. The crumbling office has been replaced by a glittering administration building, with a computerized kiosk replacing the moldy index cards which had become unusable as a method for locating graves.

    Last month, sculptor Viktor Boudanaev complained that his design concepts for the memorial had effectively been stolen by the Burr Oak committee. The sculptor showed his initial sketches for the monument, which appeared identical to the finished product. But even that controversy had a happy ending. Boudanaev said he had reached an accord with the committee, where he was given design credit, but citing a confidentiality agreement, he did not elaborate.

    "We came to an understanding, " he said. "My contribution as the designer is acknowledged and respected."

    Holmes, the Burr Oak trustee agreed, and she cited the sculptor's contribution during the dedication ceremony.

    "You know, he helped to design this monument," she said later. "He did!"

    Going forward, Burr Oak carries painful memories, but current managers emphasize that it is a real concern, and should have a solid footing for the future. Holmes said the potential for future burials puts the value at $7 million.

    "Hopefully Burr Oak will now serve as a national model for honoring the dead," Dart said in public comment later Friday, "rather than a national disgrace."