Lawmakers Reach Deal On Cemetery Reform

October 30, 2009
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imageIt’s hard to look at the video of investigators at Burr Oak Cemetery inspecting graves in the wake of the grave desecration scandal and not want to stop it from happening again.

Four former Burr Oak employees have been charged with digging up graves in a scheme to resell burial plots.

CBS 2 Political Editor Mike Flannery reports that on Thursday, state lawmakers were on the verge of passing new legislation that would put real reforms in place and help prevent such a scandal in the future.

The General Assembly was scheduled to adjourn Friday for the year. Last-minute negotiations on cemetery reform seemed to have been successful and no one’s happier than those whose loved ones disappeared from graves at Burr Oak.

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The measure was amended on the House floor Thursday evening, with the strong backing of House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. The chamber approved the bill 89-27, sending it to the Senate.

The chief sponsor, State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) and others said the amended bill would require that cemeteries must maintain a map showing each grave site; cemeteries must maintain their grounds free of garbage, and also must trim plants. County death certificates must also show burial sites.

At private, for-profit cemeteries, managers and customer service representatives must be licensed, subject to fingerprinting and background checks. Identification cards would be required for grave diggers and maintenance workers.

Opponents in the House, including Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, decried the scandal that occurred at Burr Oak but said the measure would unfairly burden cemeteries with additional costs.

Zenobia Johnson-Black has family members buried at Burr Oak. Her family was one of the lucky ones, as her mother-in-law, father-in-law and brother-in-law were all still in the graves where they were buried at Burr Oak Cemetery.

Johnson-Black said she’s pleased with a compromise working its way through the legislature at the last minute. “It will help keep track of where bodies are buried,” she said.

Tammy Veal’s family was not as fortunate as Johnson-Black’s. The Veals said they cannot find the body of mother-in-law Christine Blackwell, nor the expensive stone that marked the grave where she was buried 12 years ago.

“I hope that this doesn’t happen to any other family member went through what we’s gone through right now,” Beal said. “My husband, he ? I been tryin’ to get to talk to him about it. He’s so upset about it, since it first happened, he don’t want to talk about it. When he do, he, you know, it brings tears.”

Veal and other victims of the Burr Oak scandal told CBS 2 News that they’re happy with a compromise reform proposal hammered out in Springfield.

Michael Kotzin served on Gov. Quinn’s cemetery reform panel. He said he believes the legislation fits the panel’s recommendations.

“It certainly sounds that way. We heard a lot of people in pain. And, uh, this was taken very seriously,” Kotzin said.

Johnson-Black said the legislation is much-needed reform to prevent such a travesty in the future.

“To tamper with the loved ones, to desecrate their graves, there are very few crimes, except murder, that are worse than that, in my opinion,” she said.

Zenobia Johnson-Black said her Burr Oak Historical Society was already focusing on its next goal: obtaining state funds to build a memorial to those who bodies are missing.

She said State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) was already lobbying for the funding.

Operators of not-for-profit religious cemeteries wanted to be exempt from most of the new rules. They got their way and a spokesman for Madigan said the legislation should sail easily out of the House late Thursday.

The proposal would then move to the Senate before it could be sent to the governor’s desk.

Source: CBS Chicago

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