In the summer of 2009, three gravediggers and a cemetery manager in Alsip, Ill., 12 miles south of Chicago, were exposed in an elaborate money-grubbing scheme that grabbed national headlines and rattled the area's African-American community to the core.
The Burr Oak Cemetery, where lynching victim Emmett Till, legendary blues singers Dinah Washington and Willie Dixon and thousands of others were buried, is one of the Chicago area's most storied black cemeteries. But its legacy was forever tainted with the discovery that four cemetery workers had unearthed more than 200 graves from the front of the cemetery, including Till's, dumped them in unmarked, mass graves and resold the original plots to new families.
Though the four workers have since been charged in the crimes, and one of them has already begun her prison sentence, the aftershock from the scandal lingers on for many families impacted by the news that their loved ones' final resting places had been disturbed.
The fallout from the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal is the subject of a new documentary project -- titled "Beyond the Divide: the Burr Oak Cemetery Story" -- by Chicago-based filmmaker Naomi Kothbauer. Together with community organizer Edward Boone, Kothbauer hopes to use the story of the cemetery as a means to open up a dialogue about cultural preservation: why it's important, and what's at stake for our families, our communities and ourselves if it's not respected.
To help support getting "Beyond the Divide" off the ground, Kothbauer has launched an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign and is accepting contributions through Feb. 16.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Kothbauer about her film.
HP: What initially inspired you to delve into the Burr Oak Cemetery controversy as the subject of a documentary film?
NK: I was actually approached by Ed Boone because we had a mutual friend who introduced us. I had remembered hearing about the cemetery in 2009, because my roommate at the time had family that was buried there. I remember it being big news and I guess I'm just really particularly interested in making films about the relationship between history, the present day and the future. I feel like we can learn a lot about ourselves today when we look to the past and what has happened before. It's kind of my shtick. When I met Ed, things went forward pretty naturally. I thought it'd be a good issue to look into because, though a few years had passed, the repercussions of it are still being felt.
What was your initial reaction to the news of foul play at the cemetery?
When it first came out, I think my strongest reaction was the fact that Emmett Till's grave had been tampered with. I remembered so clearly reading and hearing about Emmett's story in history classes back in high school that I felt like, wow. For someone who was so instrumental to the civil rights movement to have their remains be desecrated in that way was really shocking.
I had been to a few funerals before but had never had a personal, deep tie with any particular cemetery. But Burr Oak is such a cornerstone of history and tradition in the African-American community in Chicago that it really surprised me that this could happen. Since it happened, there has been a lot of litigation and class action lawsuits -- and eventually even some laws could be changed to make things more strict for cemeteries. Families are also still struggling with this and some people didn't receive any sort of settlement and are dealing with the emotional impact. It feels like these people are being disregarded.
Right, and the nature of the news cycle means that this story is a few years old and that much of the initial "shock" has worn off while the controversy's impact on many families and communities remains highly potent.
The thing is that similar things could be happening in cemeteries all over, impacting both historical figures and regular folks alike. It's got me thinking about what the role of a cemetery is. It serves the role of simply burying people there, but how is it a testament to history and perseverance and how do we honor that? How do we make sure things kind of thing doesn't happen again? Even though the scandal has sort of fallen out of the news and isn't one of those "shock stories," per se, anymore, it still carries a different kind of weight. There have been a lot of interesting things that have happened since the initial investigation began.
Tell me more about working with and talking to Ed for this project. What has that been like for you?
The first time I met him I was kind of blown away by the amount of materials and contacts he had. It's every filmmaker's dream to meet that kind of a person who can point you toward more research materials and interview subjects and he's been really active in the cemetery for a long time and had been suspicious of it for a while. His parents and a few other relatives are buried there.
Before the scandal broke out, he would go there and protest the cemetery because he suspected there was some kind of problem with sewage or drainage, so he would hold up signs that said "Our loved ones should rest in peace, not in water" on peak days like Labor Day or Mother's Day. He met a lot of people there through that process and he also works as a community organizer, so he has all that down. He has made things pretty easy so far, and his personal story is really compelling.
I understand you previously completed a documentary on Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. Have you noticed certain themes or ideas carrying over from that film into this one?
Definitely the idea of the relationship between the current day and history. In so many ways, history tends to repeat itself and, maybe if people paid more attention or honored the contributions of those who came before, some things wouldn't happen again. In the Back of the Yards film, I looked into the role of the immigrant community in Chicago. From the first time the Back of the Yards existed, it was Polish people, German people, Irish people -- all of them there to find work -- and today it's largely a Mexican community. So it was interesting how the community changed but, in a way, stayed the same.
That is also kind of the case for the Burr Oak Cemetery. There are a lot of people buried there, especially if they are older, that had to go through a lot of disrespect in their lifetimes, dealing with the inequalities of segregation. And yet you still see this kind of mistreatment of the African-American community in the area in regard especially, in my opinion, to how the litigation has been handled. Many of the settlements have not been very much and it represents a repetition of disrespect. At the same time, people continuously, throughout generations have carried on family traditions, honored the past and looked to a more optimistic future.
What have been some of the biggest surprises you've encountered thus far along the process of creating this film?
The film is in the very early stages of production, but it's been really interesting on the research end already to learn about the rich history the cemetery has. A lot of famous musicians, athletes and people from a wide variety of backgrounds were buried there and pay tribute to people in that cemetery. I came across a story recently of a man who creates grave markers for former Negro League baseball players because baseball had such an impact on him. The stereotype is that a cemetery is a quiet place where you go to bury someone and you're maybe back once a year, but there is actually a lot of interaction going on and people trying to commemorate history and show their appreciation of it.
Finally, it looks like your IndieGoGo campaign is off to a really solid start. Are you confident you'll get to your goal?
I'm pretty optimistic we'll meet our goal. I think this is going to be an important film because, apart from the educational component, we're really trying to, in a way, memorialize the people who were dug up and the families who had loved ones buried there and don't know where they are. We're trying to honor their memory because, even if family members don't end up getting settlements, they can rest assured that this project is going to get into issues and try to honor those people, both well known like Emmett, as well as people who aren't in the history books but made important contributions in their time as well.
As of Jan. 6, with over a month to go, the "Beyond The Divide: the Burr Oak Cemetery Story" film's IndieGoGo campaign has raised over $1,800 of their $7,000 fundraising goal via their IndieGoGo campaign. Click here to learn more and help the film come into fruition.
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VIEW a gallery of photos revisiting the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal:
The first report, that 50 or so graves had been disturbed at the historic Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. the final resting place of civil rights icon Emmett Till and singer Dinah Washington was grotesque. But by week's end, the macabre tally had grown: nearly 300 graves, possibly more, were destroyed in an apparent grave-resale scheme that took in an as-yet-unknown amount of money. Now questions remain as to how this scandal happened and what must be done to prevent a recurrence.
Investigators began piecing together details in late May, when the owner of a burial plot arrived at the administrative office of the cemetery, in the village of Alsip (pop. 18,803), about a half-hour drive south of Chicago. "Someone else is in my loved one's grave," the plot's owner told the cemetery office's attendant, according to authorities. The burial plot's deed didn't match the headstone. The regular manager had recently been relieved of her duties amid allegations of theft, so the attendant began searching for records, only to find that they were missing. Then, according to court documents, a cemetery groundskeeper told administrators that while digging in a remote section of the cemetery covered with weeds and high soil, he'd discovered human remains. The cemetery's administrators called the authorities.(See TIME's top 10 crime stories.)
Here is what they've gleaned so far: Over a period of time that remains undetermined, the cemetery manager allegedly took payments, often in cash, from customers who believed they were buying new burial plots. In fact, authorities say, the manager ordered groundskeepers to unearth the coffins that were already buried in these plots. They were placed on trucks and disposed of in a remote section of the cemetery, often referred to as the "dump area," according to court documents. Bones often fell onto the roadway. Other times, groundskeepers would "double stack" human remains within a single, unmarked grave in the secluded part of the cemetery. One employee told investigators that sometimes a new cement liner would be brought to a burial plot and lowered onto the pre-existing one. Then a coffin containing a newly deceased person would be buried there. Markers and headstones were rearranged, not always over the corpses, according to court documents. But to the customers who had purchased the new plots, nothing seemed amiss.
Late Wednesday, investigators grimly announced that at least 50 graves had been disturbed. Four of the cemetery's employees, including its former manager, were swiftly arrested on an assortment of charges, including dismembering a human body. The most obvious motive was simple greed. Space was not an issue: there are still vast stretches of unused land at the cemetery, which opened in the 1950s and is predominantly African American.
In recent days, thousands of people from across the region have arrived at the cemetery, often in the rain, tearfully walking across what is effectively the grimmest of crime scenes. Some wore T shirts bearing the faces of deceased relatives. Others carried funeral pamphlets on which they'd long ago made notations of the spot on the cemetery's grounds they believed their relatives were buried: under an oak tree or along the side of the road.
Among the cemetery's notable inhabitants is Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Till's remains were exhumed during a 2005 investigation into his death and reburied in another coffin. The original coffin was to be saved for a memorial. Instead, it was found this week in a cemetery garage, surrounded by trash, filled with possums. "For those who did this, take up a casket and crushed it, there remains a very special place in hell for them,"said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
What lessons should be gleaned from this case? Paramount is the need for regulation that the death industry has fiercely resisted. Tom Dart, sheriff of Cook County, which includes Chicago and Alsip, observes that manicurists and barbers must endure more regulatory hurdles than most cemetery operators, including its managers and groundskeepers. Illinois, like many other states, is empowered to protect only the money that families invest in burial lots fees intended for cemeteries' long-term maintenance. In many states, there is no single agency, government or independent, that keeps up-to-date records of how many human bodies are buried or cremated on a cemetery's grounds or the names of the buried. It isn't even clear how many plots have been sold at Burr Oak; on Saturday, officials put the figure at roughly 100,000. Many of the records including maps to eight of the cemetery's 10 sections appear to have been intentionally destroyed. There is also no standard process of checking the backgrounds of cemetery workers.
The lawsuits that are already mounting against the cemetery's owner, identified in court documents as Perpetua Inc., may stimulate some serious discussion about regulation. But that does nothing to quell the concerns of people who still don't know the whereabouts of their relatives' remains. "There's a strong element of trust you have with cemetery owners," Dart says. "But this case is beyond belief. I've never had anything like it."See TIME's Pictures of the Week.