I-Team Report: Grave Concerns

July 15, 2009 (CHICAGO) The anxieties follow the discovery of a plots-for-profit scheme at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip . The I-Team has heard from concerned relatives of people buried at cemeteries across the Chicago area.

After the pillaging of plots at Burr Oak, they were contacted with grave concerns about other cemeteries and questions about whether loved ones were actually buried where the cemeteries claim.

Natalie Taylor came to Homewood Memorial Gardens last Mother's Day but says her mother's gravesite had vanished.

Her mother's tombstone and others have been cast aside unceremoniously in the weeds, atop a pile of dirt.

After the Mother's Day surprise, Natalie says she complained to the front office, asking where her mother was.

"They don't know, that's what they told me. And the lady in the office, she didn't want to leave the office to come and help us find my mom when I came for Mother's Day," Taylor said.

When she heard about the gruesome plundering of graves at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, she had new concerns.

"I hope that they're not selling the gravesites," Taylor said.

As the I-Team spoke with Taylor in the 152-year-old graveyard, the cemetery owner showed up and denied any misconduct.

"I just want to know why is her headstone over here and I can't find her body?" Taylor asked, her voice cracking.

"We know exactly where she's at, and the reason that the tombstone was moved and it's been two months now, as you can see right here, we are burying people and we are landscaping this area. So unfortunately we have to move those, the markers, so that we can come in with heavy equipment. We care about people, we care deeply about people and we know exactly where your mother is," Homewood Cemetery Owner Tom Flynn said.

"So where is she?" Taylor continued.

"Well I don't have my computer in front of me, I don't have the girls in the office, I don't have the grid system," Flynn replied.

"Well I would like to know where she is, since you know where she is," Taylor said.

"I just met you today so I don't know where your mother is, but my staff knows where your mother is and we know where everybody is out in this cemetery," Flynn said

Flynn says grave locations are entered in their computer and mapped out on a hand-written cemetery grid, but he admits they should have notified families of the landscaping disruption. When asked how he expects families to feel when they come out to find a disturbed headstone, Flynn agreed it didn't look good.

"No it's not something that is wonderful for the family to see, but it is something that is necessary...in order to do some of this landscaping. We've had to take some of the markers off of the graves, we don't move bodies," he said.

There were also grave concerns at Oak Woods. Last week when Jeanette Ruddoch came to the gravesite of her infant son who died in 1995, the tombstone had disappeared, and when family members asked a cemetery manager about it, "he said, 'oh, well, there's no gravestone for Wayne Antonio,' and I said yes there is, my daughter used her cell phone and she said 'here, here's a picture of it,'" Ruddoch said.

Ruddoch, a career employee of the U.S. Defense Department, drew a line in the dirt.

"I asked is this a common occurrence, he said 'I'm not going to answer any more questions' so at the time my daughter pulls out her cell phone and starts to videotape his hostility," she said.

Oak Woods' management admitted the infant's gravestone was missing or possibly stolen, but they say probe tests show the remains are still buried.

At the Waldheim Jewish Cemetery, an I-Team source pointed to peoples' tombstones in a parking lot, piled next to a tree stump and in a fenced off maintenance yard, all of which were explained by cemetery management as either new monuments awaiting installation, broken headstones or those from century-old, unmarked graves.

Waldheim's director says the Burr Oak scandal has raised doubts and disbelief.

"We've seen a lot of people who haven't been to the cemetery in the past 10 or 15 years...they have been calling on the phone checking to make sure their loved ones are still here," David Penzell said.

One south suburban cemetery owner said that many of the complaints he receives are about so-called "welfare graves" paid for with state funds, suggesting that they don't make money off of indigent burials and shouldn't be expected to keep them up as well as the income-producing, perpetual care gravesites.

The Illinois Comptroller regulates certain aspects of the state's cemetery business. If you believe you are the victim of unlawful practices at a cemetery or funeral home, call the comptroller's Cemetery Care Hotline: (877) 203-3401 or send them an e-mail at ccbt@mail.ioc.state.il.us

The Illinois Comptroller's website for cemetery regulations is: http://www.ioc.state.il.us/office/CCBT/index.cfm?Fuseaction=showPage&PageID=90

The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association also has a section of frequently asked questions that may be helpful: http://consumer.iccfa.com/faq/2

The Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association is largely an organization of and for owners and operators of businesses within those industries. The ICFHA website is: http://www.icfha.org/

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