An area of a suburban Chicago cemetery is so saturated with human remains that bones have been rising to the ground's surface, and workers may have discarded the remains of some 200 more people than initially thought as part of an alleged scheme to resell burial plots, a sheriff said Monday.
Rain and erosion have been causing bones to surface in a back section of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. Officials at the historic black cemetery had maintained that the 5.9-acre area had only been used for the disposal of broken headstones, branches and other debris.
Sheriff's investigators stopped searching for scattered remains weeks after the alleged scheme was uncovered in 2009, but archaeologists assigned to examine the area by a bankruptcy judge overseeing the possible sale of Burr Oak have found evidence suggesting the remains of more than 500 people were dumped as part of the alleged scheme, or more than 200 more than first estimated, he said.
"We found numerous bones laying on the surface ... and even as far as eight feet down we were coming across parts of caskets, bones and the like," Dart said. "The remains, the caskets, the (casket) liners, we just keep finding them."
Four cemetery employees were arrested in 2009 on felony charges including desecrating human remains, conspiring to dismember human bodies, and theft. They have all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Dart has fought efforts to open the area of the cemetery for burials, saying many of the bones found scattered about the cemetery were found there. He said he hoped the archaeologists' findings would persuade the bankruptcy judge to forbid burials in the area.
"Treating the back of that cemetery as if it was a normal cemetery where we can bury people is absurd," said Dart, who has pushed for a memorial for the area.
It was unclear how the findings would affect a possible sale.
"The six acres would have allowed thousands of burials and that would give it (Burr Oak) a long term future," said Roman Szabelski, the one-time court-appointed receiver at the cemetery who is now overseeing burials there. "Without that, it becomes limited."
Szabelski said that there are about 300 burials at the cemetery a year, but most of them are at family plots where there remains some space.
Dart said that if there is not space to bury many more people at Burr Oak, a government agency may need to take control of it to maintain the grounds.
Thousands of distraught people descended on Burr Oak in the days after the alleged scheme was uncovered, only to find no sign of their loved ones' graves. Dart halted the investigation after several weeks, during which more than 1,100 human bones were found. Months later, a study showed that records indicated that as many as 147,568 people were buried at Burr Oak — or about 10,000 more than an analysis indicated it was designed to hold.
The cemetery 20 miles southwest of Chicago is the final resting place of several notable black figures, including civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till, blues singers Willie Dixon and Dinah Washington, and boxer Ezzard Charles.