CHICAGO (CN) – Burr Oak Cemetery had workers dig up and move as many as 300 bodies, leaving them “exposed in open air” to recycle the graves and “resell them to unsuspecting families,” a class action claims in Cook County Court. The historic black cemetery – the first one in the Midwest dedicated to African-Americans – holds the remains of civil rights martyr Emmett Till, singer Dinah Washington and boxing champ Ezzard Charles, according to the complaint.
Four other related individual actions make similar claims.
“The cemetery was the first cemetery in the Midwest dedicated to African-Americans,” according to the class action.
The cemetery in Alsip, Ill., made national headlines this month after the bodies were found unearthed and “left to rot in an open field,” the class action claims. Families of the deceased say that Burr Oak employees were “‘double stacking’ burials … selling gravesites that were already occupied,” destroying headstones and dumping the remains of their loved ones into mass graves.
The families claim because Burr Oak Cemetery has a limited capacity, the employees sought to resell graves plots in a selfish scheme for financial gain.
While the owners of the cemetery contacted the Sheriff’s Department early this year on suspicion that their employees were digging up bodies, they never notified family members of the deceased about their concerns, according to one complaint.
The families say they learned of the desecration of the graves “when it was publicly televised on both the local and national news.”
The class action complaint does not state whether the graves of the celebrities were disturbed.
Last week some of the families filed a petition for discovery, stating that “documents and records may exist which will help identify which graves were disturbed and the bodies removed and what happened to those bodies.”
Those families seek purchase agreements, sales contracts and employee information, and any information on to the relocation of graves. They asked the court to prevent destruction of documents.
The defendants in the five lawsuits include Burr Oak Cemetery, cemetery owner Perpetua Inc., Burr Oak manager Carolyn Towns, foreman Keith Nicks, and employees Terrence Nicks and Maurice Dailey.
Plaintiffs seek punitive damages for breach of contract, negligence, emotional distress, dismemberment of bodies and desecration of the graves. The class action also alleges consumer fraud and trespass.
The individual defendants are facing felony dismemberment charges, according to news reports. Investigators say they have received approximately 7,000 inquiries from families whose members are buried at Burr Oak.
The class is estimated as “several hundred” and perhaps “several thousand.” It is represented by Arthur Loevy. Attorneys representing family members in the additional suits include Susan Loggans, Yao Dinizulu, Larry Rogers of Power Rogers & Smith, and Daniel Kotin of Corboy & Demetrio.