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Thousands of relatives flock to Illinois cemetery

Sun., July 12, 2009, midnight

Officials close graveyard; portions called crime scene

ALSIP, Ill. – Thousands of relatives hoping to find their loved ones showed up Saturday as officials exhumed one grave in a cemetery where four former employees are accused of digging up and dumping hundreds of bodies in a scheme to resell plots.

One body was found in the exhumed grave at the historic black cemetery, the Cook County sheriff said, despite an earlier report that two bodies were there. The former workers also have been accused of burying some bodies in shared graves.

Authorities closed Burr Oak Cemetery, home to the graves of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and blues singer Dinah Washington, on Friday and declared portions a crime scene. Saturday, lines snaked out of white tents where relatives filled out forms in an effort to find their loved ones’ bodies.

“It’s a zoo, and it’s going to be a zoo because every black person in Chicago has someone buried here,” said Chicago resident Jennifer Gyimah, 51, who was waiting to check on family members’ graves. “As a living human being, you give dignity to the dead. The dignity today has been shattered.”

Officials said they’d try to respond to families in the next week, but Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the investigation was hampered by a lack of maps for large sections of the cemetery. Many of those his staff had found were hand-drawn and sketchy, he said.

A portion of the cemetery devoted to children, called “Baby Land,” was particularly poorly documented, Dart said.

Three former gravediggers and a former cemetery manager have each been charged with one count of dismembering a body. The four sold existing deeds and plots to unsuspecting customers, authorities said. They then allegedly dug up hundreds of corpses and either dumped them in a weeded, vacant area of the cemetery – which authorities labeled the original crime scene – or double-stacked them in graves.


 

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