CHICAGO – Officials at a cemetery where former workers allegedly dug up graves in a scheme to resell burial plots are finding human remains in the ground when they try to bury someone else.
The discoveries are being disclosed weeks after Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip was reopened. Officials said at a news conference Wednesday that while preparing sites for burial, workers found a human bone in a spot where they didn't know anyone was buried and twice found caskets.
And, they said, there's no indication they're finished making these discoveries.
"We are trying to give a heads-up to families that we're dealing with that this may occur again," said Roman Szabelski, the one-time court-appointed receiver at the historic black cemetery who is now a consultant there. "It's going to be a day-by-day, grave-by-grave situation."
The reason, he said, is that even after months of investigating the historic black cemetery it remains impossible to find complete documentation of who was buried at the cemetery, when they were buried and exactly where. Also, said Howard Korenthal, the cemetery's chief operating officer, officials have been unable to locate maps of the cemetery dating back to its earliest days.
Those comments echo what Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said after his department launched its massive investigation in July.
Dart repeatedly said that while authorities estimated that 300 graves were dug up, the shoddy record keeping — and in some cases records that had literally disintegrated — made it impossible to say how many corpses were dug up or the identities of all those whose remains were moved. In fact, officials have not been able to say exactly when the cemetery opened, though some headstones date back to the late 1800s.
Szabelski said he thinks the people whose remains were uncovered had been buried in the 1930s, but he said officials don't know that for sure. He said the two caskets were closed and that there were no plans to open them.
Burr Oak was reopened to the public in November, but it resumed burials in October. Szabelski said the cemetery has buried about three dozen people since then and said the discoveries of the remains — the last of which occurred last weekend — have not prompted the cemetery to halt further burials, despite a strong recommendation from the sheriff's department.
"They need to slow down and go through all the records before they do more burials," said sheriff's spokeswoman Lisa Gordon.
She said the agency doesn't have the authority to stop burials without going to court, and has no plans to do so.
Szabelski said they take precautions with burials.
"I think there are parts of the cemetery (where) when we excavate the grave (and) there's no indication anyone is buried there," he explained, adding that three burials are scheduled for Friday and about three more the next day.
Szabelski said all of the remains were found a few days before planned burial services, and that family members of those awaiting burial were not at the site when those remains were discovered. Korenthal said that in all three cases the families agreed to have their loved ones buried elsewhere in the cemetery.
Szabelski said the cemetery's owner, Arizona-based Perpetua Holdings, has put Burr Oak up for sale and that offers have been made. He said the potential buyers have been alerted to the discovery of the remains and that none of them have indicated they are no longer interested.
The 150-acre cemetery is the resting place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and other prominent African-Americans.