Burr Oak reopens to visitors

Ticket system in place first week
November 19, 2009 (ALSIP, Ill.) There is a ticketing process for the first week- but that will change after Thanksgiving, at which point people will be able to come and go as they want.

Burr Oak officials say a temporary limited visitation process is needed the first week to keep things in order. It will be in place from Thursday, November 19 to Wednesday, November 25. Gates open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends. Drive-in or walk-in traffic is not allowed. Tickets are required to visit the grave sites. They are available on the Burr Oak Web site.

Nora and Odie Brown stepped down from the coach that took them to the resting places of eight loved ones on Thursday afternoon.

"I notice that everything has improved even for other people. There are some that still serve," said Nora Brown, Chicago.

There's a note of peace in his wife's voice that Odie Brown hasn't heard since the summer.

"It is much easier because you can see the signs and all that, but you don't have a problem locating it," said Oddie Brown, Chicago.

The cemetery owners have established a welcome center where families present maps of the graves they've obtained online. Their tickets allow them to enter the renovated gates of Burr Oak and beyond. Two thousand new markers and four miles of newly paved roads -- "deferred maintenance" the company calls it -- make finding that which was lost easier.

"The cemetery is for sale. And we will hopefully have a new owner, we don't have any offers yet, but it is for sale, and i can't predict the future. I can deal with what I have now," said Howard Korenthal, chief operating officer, Burr Oak Cemetery.

Nora Brown's just glad this day has come.

Elzie Banks was the first person to show up to the Burr Oak transportation center with his tickets in hand to get on a shuttle and see his family members who are buried in Burr Oak.

"These are the tickets to have access to the cemetery today," Banks said, showing printouts from the Web site. "This is for my dad who's also buried in Section 6 along with my sister."

He said he knows his sister and father are in their proper graves but is uncertain of where several other family members really are.

"Very frustrating and definitely unsure about what's going to happen. This is their final resting place," said Banks. "And yet, it's not because we don't really know where they are. And it was just comforting to know that these two were OK, but it would be a big comfort to know the rest of the family is as well. But we don't know."

Only a handful of people showed up to the transportation center, which is about a mile from the cemetery, on Thursday. There they received information, maps and tissues from people at help desks.

The court-appointed operators of the cemetery say after months or reorganizing and marking plots, it's rewarding to finally see people be able to visit there loved ones.

"Him just touching his mother's grave and the relief that that brought him, if we're able to do that today for a lot more families, then it's been very successful," said Roman Szabelski, executive director Catholic Cemeteries.

"It's been a real challenge to get this up and running," said Howard Korenthal, chief operating officer, Burr Oak. "There's been a lot of work to do. Just getting the cemetery marked has been a challenge and getting the database together."

As Corky McClerkin boarded his shuttle to see his parents' grave sites, he was grateful, but he too is still in search of eight other family members' bodies who are buried there.

"I've been very disgusted because even though they've done the best they could in terms of the sheriff's officers to check everything about it, I still feel this has been a devastating situation with respect to the African-American community all throughout the world," said McClerkin.

While the cemetery opened for the first time since July, Ollie Swan says she doesn't like the temporary restrictions, especially having to take a bus to visit her parents' gravesite.

"I thought it was pretty harsh not to be able to go and see exactly what was going on out there," she said.

Four months ago, four people were accused and charged with digging up the graves and reselling the plots. Bodies and bones were found scattered about the grounds. Now, new signage and wooden stakes have been put in to help people locate their loved ones.

"You can see the paved roads we have worked on," said Szabelski.

There are an estimated 140,000 burials at Burr Oak Cemetery with 43,000 having headstones.

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