Why Do Black People Care About the Burr Oak Cemetery Tragedy?

The cemetery suspects, clockwise from the top: Carolyn Towns, Keith Nicks, Terrence Nicks,  Maurice Daily (Courtesy: Chicago Crime Examiner)

The cemetery suspects, clockwise from the top: Carolyn Towns, Keith Nicks, Terrence Nicks, Maurice Daily (Courtesy: Chicago Crime Examiner)

My maternal grandfather is buried in Holt Cemetery in New Orleans. What many of you don’t realize is that Holt Cemetery, opened in 1879 and still city property, is essentially a potter’s field, a cemetery for those who are poor and indigent and who cannot afford to be buried, even without a coffin or a headstone. Instead of being buried above ground as many cemeteries are in New Orleans, they are buried below ground–six feet under in the mushy, mucky, swampy ground. Eventually, as the ground moves with the swamp water, so do the remains, until they’re all mixed up.

Holt Cemetery is the final resting place of many early known and unknown jazz musicians like Buddy Bolden (whose grave rededication I attended in 1996). Briefly, the infamous Robert Charles‘ battered remains were interred there. But for the most part, it is for the city’s poor, of no matter what color. A recent observer, The Graveyard Rabbit of the Quad Cities, said a lot about Holt in February 2009:

The grave markers themselves range from traditional gravestones to handmade. One grave has a coping made of white-painted cinder blocks. Some have crosses with names and dates painted on them. Others merely have upright pieces of wood with the names without any dates. In a family plot, people are essentially stacked upon one another as they are buried. Eventually all the bones mix together. In fact, it is not uncommon for pieces of bones to rise to the surface in this cemetery. During the clean-up day I attended after Hurricane Katrina, I came across a number of bones. It’s hard to describe what that was like. I come from the Midwest, land of perfectly trimmed garden cemeteries. People are buried neatly in caskets and inside vaults. At Holt, there could be a wooden coffin, maybe a casket, maybe nothing. I can’t say for sure, but it’s a different world in that cemetery.

While Holt may sound like a sad place, it is just the opposite. For me, at least. It’s a very active cemetery. Toys and flowers and objects of love are constantly placed throughout the cemetery. A child who died in the 1970s still has fresh toys left on her grave. Money doesn’t mean everything. Holt gives new meaning to “it’s the thought that counts.

Often, Holt is overrun with thick, tall grass and weeds. I remember going to see where my grandfather might be, and the cemetery keepers were there mowing like mad in preparation for the Bolden ceremony, and the smell of moist grass during the muggy day would make anyone’s eyes tear. The whole sad, but proud, and sometimes lovely sight that emerged made me think of something out of Haiti or Africa, because it is a kind of art.

Thinking about how The Graveyard Rabbit was shocked to find a stack of human bones in Holt Cemetery after Katrina–and how there was an unidentified stack of bones in Burr Oak Cemetery–made me recall one of the cardinal rules of Holt Cemetery, because there were rules. If a gravesite is not marked or has the look of not being “kept up,” it is more likely that the remains would be removed or disinterred for another. Unidentified, they would then be incinerated.

Reportedly, Holt Cemetery plots are no longer sold, although existent family plot burials still occur. Why didn’t the owner or the grave keepers of Burr Oak Cemetery make that determination? There’s only so many bodies that can be held in the ground; even the effing Nazis knew that. And why didn’t they begin to transfer long ago records onto computers? Even New Orleans isn’t that backward.

At the time I visited New Orleans in 1996, my grandfather had been dead for almost forty years. During his last illness, he had specifically asked my grandmother to forget him: to move on with her life and to not grieve over him or care for his remains. And that also meant not putting up a headstone or grave marker over him. My grandmother, who managed to get an insurance policy for her burial, is interred in Metairie.

So when I called the Orleans Parish coroner’s office, it did have an idea where he might be located, if he was still there. They did not believe that the plot had been disturbed. My grandfather had been an orphan who grew up on the road and was poorly educated compared to today’s standards, although he knew how to read and write. He learned a trade at the side of others who knew how or already had businesses. Now he rested next door to Delgado Community College, where if he came back tomorrow as a young man, he could get a great education.

I did not bring flowers, but I brought a small plant in the hope that it would flourish there as a kind of undeclared marker, and one of the keepers who was’t mowing consulted a computer and helped me figure it out. I had written the coordinates in my New Orleans guidebook. My grandfather was right near a wall. So I set down the plant and talked to him for a while…until the heavens burst open and cried as they do most summer afternoons in New Orleans.

The reason I bring all this up is that even at a potter’s field in New Orleans, there are rules. Burr Oak Cemetery near Chicago is now a 150-acre crime scene because its keepers broke those cardinal rules…and those laws. The surviving families have to go through a kind of second grieving, because not all the stacks of bones investigators have found cannot be reassembled and reinterred through DNA. DNA deteriorates over time.

Worse, most of the graves the keepers desecrated were those of babies and young children in an area called Babyland. Plus, this turns out that is not the first time that an alarm had been sounded about Burr Oak. There had been a quashed Alsip police investigation in response to complaints in 2005 that exhumed remains were being displayed in plain view at the cemetery.

Hours after Police Chief Christopher Radz dismissed claims made by two subcontractors about seeing human bones four years ago at Burr Oak, he said his department is reopening the probe.

Two Commonwealth Edison subcontractors said they first reported the grisly scenes to police in 2005 while working inside the cemetery, but nothing was done.

“I just started seeing skulls, arms, caskets, everything,” said Russ Bausone, 43. “There were about 100 body parts spread in mounds of dirt over three or four blocks, and I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ “

Police shut down the site for 10 days to investigate, then let the crew return, telling Brian Beard it was “taken care of,” he said.

“The body parts had been covered up, but when our heavy trucks drove over the mounds of dirt, the bones came back to the surface,” said Beard, 42.

Knowing something about Illinois, someone must have been paid off, I think, to overlook something as big as large mounds of bones and pieces of coffins in an open field for even a short period of time. As well as the sloppy reburying. Something this big and obvious–up to 200-300 graves being disturbed–couldn’t have been hidden for long. The owner himself could not have been that dense, as his own people are allegedly buried at Burr Oak as well.

These bones had been people. True, there is nothing left to hold onto but memories. But the impact is more psychological on the living when a loved one’s grave is desecrated. A gravesite connects relatives to memory and to who and what their roots are. It doesn’t mean that they’re anchored to place; black former Chicagoans and Milwaukeeans who have migrated to Madison, WI and elsewhere in the country are also concerned over the fate of their people. The living drew solace from visiting the dead even at crucial moments. No longer can their descendants and close relatives contemplate lying next to or with them when their time comes. They don’t know anymore; they cannot recognize mere bones, which can be profoundly distressing and wrenching.

[Professor Suzanne] Smith [of George Mason University] said African-American Protestants and followers of tribal traditions also believe the desecration of a tomb upsets ancestors in the afterlife. The grave site is viewed by many as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The onus is on the living to protect that portal.

“Cosmologically speaking, it means you better make it right,” Smith said. “The ancestors need to be appeased. By stirring up this sacred space you unsettle the ancestors’ spirits.”

The dead and the relatives, some barely into the middle-class, paid with insurance policies and hard-earned salaries for them to lie there. Therefore, it was blood and sweat money that put them there. The grave keepers, on the other hand, who were also black people, thought so little of them but as commodities sold them off like a mess of potage. For $300,000?

I think too, that generations do not know who are in these all-black cemeteries. Many have no idea about their own history or appreciation for it. They could walk through something like Holt and think that it needs to be stripped bare to clean it up. And no understanding or appreciation breeds contempt. As I have mentioned, Buddy Bolden is in Holt; in Burr Oaks was the civil rights boy martyr Emmett Till, the Fifties’ heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles and blues singer Dinah Washington–for starters.

Thankfully some, like Manya Brachear, are coming up with some answers for all this dislocation and disrespect.

If identifying those remains turns out to be an impossible feat, as some federal and Cook County authorities have suggested, a formal reburial rite to sanctify a common grave may be the only way to restore dignity to those removed from what was supposed to be their own personal resting place.

To reflect the multitude of burial rites that have unfolded in the Alsip-area cemetery over the years, that rite would need to incorporate African-American Protestant, Roman Catholic, Muslim and Jewish traditions. Experts said that given the fact that it is an African-American cemetery, African tribal rites should be included as well.

Even the black Jews have something to say about this:

Rabbi Capers Funnye, leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, said several members of the largely African-American congregation have been buried in the “hallowed ground” of Burr Oak. Because he believes the crimes interrupt the continuum of life that Jews hold sacred, reinterring those whose graves have been desecrated requires all the rites prescribed in Jewish law.

“In Judaism, respect for the dead is of paramount importance,” he said. “In this instance you are absolutely most defenseless. We have an obligation to reinter them and recommit their bodies to the Earth.”

Finally, I want to say that while in New York, I witnessed a couple of the programs and ceremonies connected with the reburial of the bones of hundreds of former slaves whose graves were uncovered when the ground was being prepared for a new Federal building downtown.

In fact, most of Wall Street literally sits on the bones of African slaves who, contrary to what Pat Buchanan thinks about the contributions of white people, were overworked and underfed to death to build one of the first major settlements in the United States. I could not take time off to see the parade of black, Hispanic and white children who accompanied the hundreds of beautifully decorated and executed wooden boxes with the boxes of our ancestors. However, I did go to pay tribute to them.

Unfortunately, I behaved just as I did when I went to see Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta: I wept. I touched the boxes and wept quietly for them, chanted daimoku, and left what few pennies I had on their lids. I saw things people had made on their lids and even flowers. People were standing vigil with them during the night, in shifts or all night as a personal or group vow. One of the buildings nearby were also showing documentaries all-night about early New York and its slave population and after a couple of hours of watching, and discovering that I had a friend there, I went home on the subway to Harlem.

As emotionally draining as that experience was, I felt that in giving respect to these bones that I did not know, I was respecting myself.

~ by blksista on July 18, 2009.

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