Chicago SCI Cemetery Operating Without Business License?

December 2, 2009
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image It has been six years since Toni Gonnigan’s oldest brother, Jerome, died. Since her brother’s burial at Oak Woods Cemetery, she has gone to the cemetery monthly to visit his grave. On Monday, she arrived to find that the flat headstone marking her brother’s grave had been moved.

“They took the headstone and just threw it to the side,” Gonnigan complained during a telephone interview.

“They got another grave dug up beside my brother’s grave. The headstone is not supposed to be removed. They didn’t contact me to let me know anything.”

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Gonnigan didn’t just complain to the manager of the cemetery or to me. She called the police.

“His marker was there and was in line to be damaged by the backhoe,” so it was moved, said a woman who identified herself as the cemetery’s manager, but declined to give her full name.

“The marker was going to be replaced later, but it did not get put back on Friday because the burial was too late in the day. We were always going to put it back on Monday morning.”

There’s no reason to suspect that anything is amiss at this cemetery.

After all, a who’s who of Chicagoans is buried in Oak Woods, including Ida B. Wells, Bill Veeck, former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and John H. Johnson.

Because so many politicians and celebrities are buried at Oak Woods, the South Side cemetery has been a celebrated tourist attraction.

But the grave desecrations at Burr Oak Cemetery have made many of us a lot less trusting.

Those who didn’t know it before, now know that you can’t just take a loved one’s remains to a cemetery and leave them there.

Now when graves or markers are disturbed at any of the other area cemeteries, a lot more people are going to be around to notice.

“We didn’t pay for the headstone to be thrown to the side,” Gonnigan told me. “We paid fees for his grave to be taken care of. This is just unacceptable.”

The headstone for Jerome Gonnigan’s grave was put back while his sister was on the phone with me.

A cemetery manager also offered to place fresh flowers on the grave site.

“I am sure that this has to do with everything that went on at Burr Oak,” she told me later.

Still, Gonnigan, who was pretty upset, insisted that a Chicago Police officer take a report of the incident.

Where that report will end up is anybody’s guess because it isn’t clear what authority, if any, the Chicago Police Department has in such a situation. The same stumbling block made it hard for people who complained about Burr Oak.

As is the case with Burr Oak, the company that runs Oak Woods Cemetery is from out of state.

The Houston-based Service Corporation International boasts of operating funeral homes and cemeteries all over North America.

Gonnigan isn’t impressed.

She noticed that the City of Chicago business license that was on display in the cemetery’s office on Monday had expired.

When I asked about the license, Jennifer Brandino, a spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, e-mailed this response:

“It was our understanding that our license is current, but we are currently investigating its status and are taking any appropriate measures to reinstate it if necessary.”

A spokeswoman for the city noted that Chicago does not license cemeteries, but does require a license for the sale of headstones.

A license for Oak Woods Management Co., apparently to sell headstones, expired in July and has not been renewed.

Gonnigan said she will keep visiting her brother’s resting place every month.

“To be honest with you, [cemetery owners] do not expect that. I have never missed a month. I come out here and I check on the grave,” she said.

“I understand some people can’t get out to the cemetery, but if people don’t expect that you are paying attention like that anything can happen. I come all the way out here from Matteson every month — rain, sleet or snow.”

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

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