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Study Suggests too Many Bodies at Chicago Cemetery?

January 12, 2010

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Study Suggests too Many Bodies at Chicago Cemetery?

imageCHICAGO ? Thousands more people may be buried at a historic black cemetery in a Chicago suburb than the land is supposed to hold, according to a study obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Police study suggests that the practice of stacking caskets on top of each other or simply discarding remains was more common at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip than anyone suspected, law enforcement officials said.

The study, obtained by The Associated Press after filing a Freedom of Information request with the sheriff’s department, comes six months after the department charged four former workers with taking part in a scheme in which they allegedly dug up graves and resold burial plots.

According to the study, records indicate between 140,190 and 147,568 people are buried at Burr Oak, while an analysis of maps of the property reveal the maximum number of graves the cemetery should hold is about 138,000.

“No one had their arms around how bad this problem was,” said Sheriff Tom Dart. He said the study underlined a point he had been making for months and had reiterated in December when the cemetery revealed that since burials resumed a handful of remains had been found in spots where nobody knew people were buried.

“You need to stop,” he said of his advice to the cemetery. “We can’t keep going like this.”

Investigators say there may be even more people buried at Burr Oak than the study suggests.

“We believe it is going to be multiple thousands of people (buried) in excess of what it can possibly hold,” said Jack Steed, the department’s director of financial crimes.

Steed said the 138,000-capacity estimate is based on a review by the county assessor’s office of the entire 150-acre cemetery ? including areas that do not appear to have been used for graves. Discarded vaults and human bones were found in one area about the size of three football fields.

Howard Korenthal, the independent chief operating officer who is overseeing daily operations at Burr Oak, said he had not seen the report and did not know how it might affect efforts by the cemetery owner, Perpetua-Burr Oak Holdings of Illinois, to sell the land as a “working cemetery” that still has room for more graves.

Perpetua has filed for bankruptcy.

Korenthal would not disclose how much space was available or address the study’s conclusions.

Steed acknowledged that the capacity was based on the assumption that one person was buried in each plot. Records indicate that some plots were legally designed to hold more than one person ? such as those for a husband and wife ? but that an analysis of the records shows that practice was not widespread.