Burr Oaks Cemetery: "Reverence for the Dead" out the window

Todd Van Beck's picture

Well, my friends, a new industry scandal has happened again and in a big way.  No pushing things under the rug with this mess.  No polite excuses this time.  No escaping the brutal facts concerning how the dead were treated, and the ultimate consequences of how the living are being treated-- those whose loved ones were, I guess, buried or something in Burr Oaks Cemetery.  Unethical treatment of the dead always results in unethical treatment of the living – they go hand in hand. 

Lawyers have already come out of the woodwork, and with good reason.  The people who it is alleged did these dastardly deeds should have to give an accurate and truthful account of what happened.   Right now it looks like great big fines and long prison terms might just be in the offing if what has been alleged happened.

The reader might honestly ask, “Just what is the problem?”  Search for news concerning the Burr Oaks Cemetery in the greater Chicago area and you will find the answers. Let me give a quick overview.  It appears that greed was alive and well on the grounds of Burr Oaks Cemetery.  In a nutshell, it is alleged, with some mighty impressive probabilities, that dead bodies were removed, not buried, shoved here and there or God knows what, and then the grave lots were sold again, and, it is alleged, again and sometime again.  It appears that a group of cemetery employees had devised a dandy scheme to make a quick buck by using and abusing dead people by reselling graves in which a dead body had already been buried.

Pretty sick stuff, but that is the alleged story.  The sheriff has now arrived on the scene and the group of ghouls is being handled by the legal system and the word felony is being bantered around in the district attorney’s office.  One congressman from the district has made a sincere and urgent public call for major burial reform, protection of graves, security, systems of monitoring. In other words, the congressman wants people to give the care of dead bodies some serious attention – now there is an interesting idea, ethically caring for the dead. The thought has never crossed Todd Van Beck’s mind before (that’s a joke HA, HA). Now, as in the Tri-State Crematory (remember that gem) debacle several years ago, everybody is standing up in indignation and anger.  I do feel for the victims.  Most of them, I am certain, entered into the burial experience with a heart filled with trust, and it now is alleged that that sacred trust has been brutally violated.

However as sympathetic as I am to the majority of victims in any case, I am not naïve to “victims.”  Too many times I have served as an expert witness in legal cases where at the time of the death of a family member the next of kin basically says to the cemeterian and undertaker,  “To hell with Dad, cremate him, cheapest thing possible, don’t bother me with the details.”  We all know this happens, but in polite society we just don’t talk about this much – but we all know it happens and is happening more and more as time goes by.  Then two years later when the disengaged next of kin discovers that Dad was not actually cremated but instead his dead body was dumped in a forest, then a miracle of reconciliation and concern happens, and the next of kin says to their brand new lawyer friend, “Dad was a saint, we loved him so much.  We are mentally falling apart over this.  How much do you think we can get?”  Of course, regardless of personal motivation, when the dead are not taken care of as instructed by the next of kin, that is a breach of contract pure and simple and something needs to be done.

For years, I have been totally confused concerning the glaring gap between people saying on the one hand, “Oh, when you’re dead, you’re dead, it doesn’t make any difference,” or “When I am dead I don’t really care what you do which me – hell, I’ll be dead and won’t know the difference,” or “When I am dead just roll me over in a ditch.”

Then when something like Burr Oaks happens in real life, when dead bodies are alleged to actually have been in effect rolled over in ditches, and the body in question is now their mother or father, or son or daughter, or husband or wife, or brother or sister, or cousin, or simply a friend or just any human being who lived life and has had their dead body is treated in such a despicable manner – then the shouts and cries come that such treatment of the dead is a moral abomination and should never happen again. But it does happen again, and again, and again.

So why does something like Burr Oaks happen?  I mean, folks, they even desecrated Emmitt Till’s old casket.  Could the culprits just be stupid?  Mr. Till is possibly the most famous person buried on the Burr Oaks grounds, and his former casket was just put in an old garage and was not even closed.  Were they so greedy, so out to lunch, so slow to the switch that they possibly thought that abusing Emmitt Till’s original casket, which was to be used at a later date in a permanent memorial, would not be found out? That the result would not be the community going “nuts” and a possible prison sentence?  Obviously these cemetery ghouls (if they did what is alleged, that is what they are) did not soberly weigh the community and/or legal response to the discovery of such activities.

They are finding out now, but now it is much too late, as of course it was much too late at Tri-State Crematory.  It seems that so much in life comes to our attention much too late.  Are those not haunting words: "too late."?  Some of most grievous and disastrous happenings in recorded history and on the face of the earth have occurred simply because it was “much too late.”

So why does something like Burr Oaks happen?  We still have not yet answered the question.

I have one thought concerning why this type of irreverence for the dead, this violation of a basic human ethic which proclaims the right of the dead to rest in peace, stems not from the stupid, greedy people who get caught, but comes in part from the basic attitude of apathy and distance our culture has created putting a wall between the living and the dead.  People, many people, are totally removed from such moral issues as ethical care of the dead – is it just not a sexy, popular subject.  Apathy on the part of the regular members of the community concerning the safe and ethical care of the dead does in a true way open to door for the stupid and greedy to abuse the silent world of the cemetery.

In the “good old days," when families and communities regularly visited the graves of their loved ones and even went so far as to tend to the graves themselves, when there was a constant living visible presence of people – many people – on the grounds of cemeteries, incidences of such abomination to the dead were basically unheard of.  Certainly in the 1850s grave-robbing occurred, but with the burial vault that creepy activity was brought to an abrupt halt.  Also, I am not referring to the ever present incidences of cemetery vandalism where a group of teen-agers or weird adult cults dare each other to jump the cemetery walls and behave recklessly and/or participate in odd and strange rituals.

The group of alleged creeps at Burr Oaks obviously went undetected for some time with disastrous results, and heads will no doubt roll. How could this have happened? The state regulatory boards cannot possibly monitor the activities of every cemetery and funeral home in the United States – it is an impossible job, always has been and always will be. However, if each member of every community in this country got reconnected with the dead, with their own dead, and made certain that things were OK at grandpa’s burial site, even by asking a friend, if you live out of town, to stop by any take a look at “Pop's” grave, I believe things would be much different.  I know that sounds so simple, but I truly believe that a greater presence of the regular members of any community on the grounds of any cemetery would make a difference.

My sainted grandmother had a great saying, “An untended grave is a shameful thing,” and you know she was not talking about perpetual care, as I am certain my grandmother did not even know what perpetual care was.   She was talking about every human being giving attention to graves. Attention is where the words “attend or tend” originated.

When I drive by a cemetery and see tens, sometimes hundreds of people musing and walking around a cemetery looking at graves, it does my heart good.  It is a form of community cemetery security system no doubt.  When I drive by a cemetery and see no one on the grounds I worry, and I have worried about this human absence on cemetery grounds long before Burr Oaks.  An unvisited cemetery is just more vulnerable than one which welcomes and encourages and plans for the locals to come in and commiserate with the living and the dead.  In fact I believe it is the only place on earth where such unique commiserations can take place, and take place forever, for a cemetery is usually around for a long, long time.

I suspect privately that the folks at Burr Oaks did not welcome visitors on the grounds with a warm cordial handshake and say, “Spend all the time you need here, we are glad you visited.”  It would not surprise me to learn that with all that has been alleged, the management and staff and Burr Oaks probably found visitors, the regular members of the community, a nuisance.

Of course the most secure way to protect a dead body is to cremate it and scatter the remains to the wind so absolutely no one on earth knows where the body is.  This way it is quick, simple, safe – powerful motivators these days with today’s consumers. I wonder how well this, quick, simple and safe method of caring for the dead will work for cemeteries which in these times really, really need to sell graves to survive and prosper.  In a real perverted and sick way it appears that Burr Oaks really, really needed to sell graves, but what a bizarre and sick way to do it.  I really think there are better ways – don’t you?

Sadly I fear in the end everybody connected with death care will pay a price for the allegations of what happened at a place called Burr Oaks.

Here is an example of the price that just might be in the offing for the future of some cemetery and/or funeral home in the not too distant future.  Might it be that the outcome of the allegations about Burr Oaks will not be improved management of cemeteries, or improved community monitoring and visitation of cemeteries, or improved state regulations overseeing cemeteries, but instead something much more invisible, but yet extremely powerful such as this:  Archie Bunker in Tiny Rock, Iowa, (this story is national news everywhere) looks at his wife Edith after reading about Burr Oaks. With a wave of his hand, he simply says these chilling words, “Hell with it. Edith, they are not going to steal my body and resell my grave over and over again, ya just can trust people anymore. Honey, just cremate me, scatter my ashes over the Tiny Rock River, say a prayer and be done with it.  Do you understand me?”

And Edith responds, “Yes honey, I understand, anything you want.”

Of course as usual I am probably just overreacting, Burr Oaks will pass and the imaginary conversation in between Edith and Archie in Tiny Rock, Iowa, is pure fantasy and speculation.  I do this sort of thing all the time, and remember, my friends, Todd Van Beck is usually wrong. 

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.


Ed Horn's picture

Civilization can trace its genesis to attending to the deceased. Regardless of the motivation or rationalizations relied upon people were compelled to honor the dead. The expenditure of resources required to do so consolidated individuals into ever larger groupings. Perhaps nations resulted.

There is no explanations or excuses for Burr Oaks. The entire operation was an affront to our profession, and more importantly rejection of the society and culture that should have defined their work and personal lives.

Legislation would not have prevented the actions taken by the employees of Burr Oaks. So far science has failed to evolve permiting advanced identification of the ethical, moral and personality defects which sanctioned these horrendous acts of cruelty and shame.

Our profession is not alone in finding employees and operators who are so terribly devoid of human compassion.

Todd Van Beck's picture

To my associate and friend Ed Horn. First many thanks for your concise and excellent appraisal of the ethic of reverence for the dead. I appreciated the word and thoughts. Also I did not realize that I could reply to you as I am really not too savy with computer stuff, but Ms. Loving quickly taught me in her usual clear and direct style. So thank you. Burr Oaks, WOW, such avoidable human behaviors. It still makes me cringe when I think of the abomination. TVB

Ed Horn's picture


I have always marveled at your precise heartfelt commentary and insights.
Our profession is enriched by you and your leadership!

Hope to see you in DC.


I'm a funeral service student, looking for the definition of reverence for the dead. Would you mind giving me your defintion of the term?

Thank you,

I hope you get this. First I just was taught how to respond to these messages. so my apology for the long delay. Also best to you in this wonderful profession - don't let the naysayers get you down = I have been a funeral director for 42 years and it is still the best decision I have made in my life. Concerning your question, the definition of the ethic of "Reverence for the Dead" is an involved process which takes time to explore, explain and understand. Way too much information for our purposes on a blog. However I would be more than happy to communicate further with you - if you desire to you can just put my name in the computer and my contact information should pop up, or just call the ICCFA office and they can get you my stuff. My email is toddvanbeck@sbcglobal.net. I hope you will pursue this, I think you would be interested in the information. Thanks for reading my stuff. TVB