Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Expect ILGA action on Burr Oak this week

By Jamey Dunn
Public outcry and personal tragedy spurred quick reaction to a Chicago-area cemetery scandal.

Investigators revealed last week that bodies buried in Burr Oak, a historic African-American cemetery in Alsip, were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an apparent scheme to resell individual gravesites. Four cemetery employees have been charged in connection with the scam.

Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes Burr Oak, said that as early as tomorrow, the General Assembly could consider legislation intended to address regulatory gaps exposed by the crimes. “I think emergency legislation is surely needed,” she said.

The measure is part of a joint effort from area legislators, Comptroller Dan Hynes, Gov. Pat Quinn, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. It is expected to include:

  1. Licensing requirements for cemetery owners and staff that would be overseen by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
  2. Cemetery maintenance and record-keeping standards.
  3. Increased criminal penalties for disturbing a grave site, which already is a felony.
  4. Recourse for families to seek financial compensation if their relatives’ graves were affected by the Burr Oak scandal.

Legislators voiced concern that other cemeteries in Illinois might have severe maintenance problems and called on citizens to report any suspicious activities or neglect to local authorities.

Citizens will soon have a forum to air their concerns. A task force originally created to address collapse of the state’s pre-need funeral trust also will look into potential reforms of cemetery regulation and licensing. Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican and licensed funeral director, said hearings could start by the end of the month and would allow victims of the Burr Oak scheme, law enforcement officials and industry insiders to testify and to offer input on possible reforms.

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat who said he has 27 family members buried at Burr Oak, said it could be difficult for lawmakers to address such an emotionally raw issue that has personally affected many among their ranks. “There are no easy answers,” he said. “There can’t be — ’cause who would have thought?”

As for the four charged with disturbing graves at Burr Oak, Trotter added: “There’s not a jail cell or holding that’s cruel enough. There’s not a hell hot enough for these individuals to go to.”

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