Austin residents with family members buried at Burr Oak Cemetery will have a chance to join in on a class-action lawsuit filed July 10 against the Alsip burial ground, where bodies were allegedly dug up and the plots resold for profit.
Attorneys representing more than 400 families will be out at churches on the West Side and throughout the city starting on Sunday to answer questions from victims not already among the growing number of plaintiffs. The families can also request to join the lawsuit, the attorneys have said.
Burr Oak Cemetery is temporarily closed and is expected to reopen Aug. 1. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the cemetery, where four workers are accused of reselling used gravesites and pocketing the cash after dumping the bodies in other areas of the cemetery.
The four cemetery employees accused of the crime – Carolyn Towns, Terrence Nicks, Keith Nicks and Maurice Dailey – are named in the lawsuit, as is the cemetery’s parent company, Arizona-based Perpetua LLC.
Attorney Deidre Baumann, of the Chicago law firm Baumann & Shuldiner, said the number of victims continues to increase.
“I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude in terms of such a large number of people afflicted,” she said of the case.
The suit, she added, will include financial damages for the victims’ families, an amount that’s still to be determined. Chicago law firm Horwitz, Richardson & Baker is also representing families in the suit. Baumann said the lawyers will be at churches beginning Sunday, talking to people still unsure about the status of relatives and friends buried at Burr Oak.
The news about this historically black cemetery has touched the lives of people in Austin, whose more than 100,000 residents know people buried there. Well-known blacks, including several Negro League ballplayers, and Emmett Till, the victim of a 1955 hate crime murder in Mississippi, are among those buried at Burr Oak. Those grave sites reportedly have not been tampered with.
Austin’s Smith & Thomas Funeral Home, 5708 W. Madison, last conducted a burial at Burr Oak in March. The week the story broke of the grave-robbing, a family was planning to hold a burial there, but opted for Restvale Cemetery, which is a few miles north of Burr Oak.
Smith & Thomas funeral director Diane Johnson said the funeral home has received calls from families looking for plot information for relatives buried at Burr Oak, and has even received calls from people with family members not buried at Burr Oak.
Several churches in Austin have congregation members with relatives at the cemetery. Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller, said about 50 of his parishioners are among the Burr Oak families, a number that has grown since the news broke two weeks ago. This past Sunday, Acree joined other clergy on the South Side, hosting a press conference with family members calling for the sheriff’s office to host regular community meetings about the case.
“A lot of people are frustrated,” Acree said. “We want [Sherriff Tom Dart] to be more aggressive in talking to the community. We’re thankful that he broke the case, but come to the community in person and deal with these questions.”
Acree, a member of LEADER’s Network of West Side clergy, said his group is also offering counseling to people who may not have their own family pastor.
“A lot of people are hurting and overwhelmed emotionally,” Acree added.