by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 21, 2009
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- If I were to suggest being shocked that someone would rob a grave, I'd be misinforming you. Body snatchers and grave robbers have been around for at least a few thousand years.
It's always fascinated me that in the early years of English Common Law a dead body could have no owner and therefore no person could dictate the disposition of the body. This led to using the cadaver for medical purposes, as soon after death as possible - there being no refrigeration to preserve the remains. Initially, only the cadavers of executed prisonors were used; finally, with fewer executions and classrooms filled with medical students paying princely sums to the medical colleges teaching them, the search for fresh cadavers was broadened.
Last week, the heinous crime of violating corpses and destroying grave sites for profit was revealed, the perpetrators arrested, and the extent of their greed shocked a world-wide audience as word spread they emptied graves and resold the plots.
This crime was an ongoing project for over four years. How could this be? Wasn't there a manager who was overseer of the property? Oh, yes. The manager, Carolyn Towns. Her bond was set for $250,000 and the three gravediggers were charged with a bond set at $200,000 each. Towns, it was suggested, kept money earmarked for an Emmet Till Memorial Museum. Till, a Civil Rights lynching victim, is buried there at Burr Oak Cemetery. His grave has not been desecrated.
Jazz legend Dinah Washington, who died in 1964 at age 39, is buried there along with many notable African-Americans. For a long time, African-Americans had only Burr Oak available to them.
As the news was released, angry family members arrived to check on the gravesides of their loved ones. Jesse Jackson made an impromptu statement expressing his ire and saying, "there's a special place in hell" for those accused in this alleged scheme.
There is no reason for it but greed. There was no need to make room for more of our deceased family, friends and neighbors. The perpetrators were selling plots already bought and paid for by someone else. The books have mysteriously disappeared. The careless manner in which they carried out their deeds defies understanding. The corpses were tossed with others in a woodsy, weeded area, the coffins broken up and thrown along with the cement casement, chopped up, piled up and resembling a "jersey wall."
This foursome executed dastardly deeds for their gain, entered the sanctity of the plot where our intentions of laying our loved ones to rest for eternity are now stripped of their meaning. Fortunately, there are laws against interfering with a corpse.
And if the laws they (allegedly) broke condemn them to terms of imprisonment in a Chicago Jail or an Illinois Prison, then the prison population in those facilities will surely count among them dozens whose parents, grandparents and others are buried at Burr Oak Cemetery. I'm not suggesting jail house justice but I will not be surprised if something happens.
It seems so universal that we treat our dead with reverence but I wondered what other countries do - much depends upon climate, elevation and refrigeration and, of course, religious customs. I looked up Chennai, India - formerly Madras - on the Bay of Bengal. I learned a resolution was passed to reduce the period stipulated for reusing graves in cemeteries in the city when it had been under British rule for just 14 years.
According to the Hindu, a natinal daily there, the resolution states: "...a grave where a body has been buried without a coffin can be reused after 12 months. A grave where a body has been buried in a wooden coffin can be reused after 18 months and the grave that holds a body buried in a metal coffin can be reused after seven years. In all these cases, the remains of the body buried earlier must not be tampered with."
We have no such rulings in this country. When a body is buried, it's buried. Yet I wonder if the frequency with which we watch televised exhumations of bodies for crime solving, forensics, collecting DNA to establish parenthood or other reasons to further drama in crime and police procedural plots has not inured us to the sacredness of a burial site. Those workers who scammed the living and dismissed the dead as nothing to care about probably felt it was all in a day's work.
Cemeteries used to be places you didn't walk by after dark. It was spooky; it was eerie and ghostly. Now you might visit grandma and have a picnic on the wooden tables in the adjacent park. In Mexico they celebrate The Day of the Dead, Los Dias de los Muertos, and with joy and frivolity they decorate tombstones, picnic, play with the children and celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones.
To those laid to rest at Burr Oak, I no longer say: "Rest in Peace." Too late for that today, but we will make it right for you because we care. As for the perpetrators, I say: Shame on you, and I join Jesse Jackson in saying, "There's a special place in hell" for you.