As Burr Oak settlement payments arrive, old wounds reopen

Charles Lewis and his wife, Marianne, show papers from their legal fight with Burr Oak Cemetery. (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune)

On the day that his settlement check arrived, Charles Lewis paused for a moment and stared at the document.

It had been 25 years since he buried his 2-year-old daughter, Darlene, at Burr Oak Cemetery, in an area reserved for children. And it had been three years of attending meetings and searching for death certificates and public records in an effort to sue the cemetery owners after authorities determined graves had been dug up and plots resold.

His daughter's grave was among those that could not be located, he said. And now, after years of complicated bankruptcy hearings, the case that Lewis and thousands of others filed against the cemetery had been resolved.

Lewis was paid $50.

As Lewis stared at his settlement check, disappointment and anger welled up in his chest, he said. He knew it would be modest, but after attorney's fees and administrative costs, even the $100 promised was cut in half.

"I couldn't believe it," said Lewis, 49, whose father is also buried in the historic cemetery. "It's disgusting. That grave site is my only connection to my (deceased) loved ones. Now it's lost. And I get $50."

It's been three years since authorities learned that four workers at the once-illustrious Burr Oak Cemetery were allegedly digging up graves, dumping the remains in a lot and reselling the plots. In July 2009, the cemetery near Alsip was shut down by the Cook County sheriff's office and the four workers were arrested. Three of those cases remain in court; the alleged ringleader was sentenced last year to 12 years in prison.

After the scandal became public, more than 5,000 people joined class-action lawsuits against the owners of the cemetery. Some hoped that by financially crippling the cemetery, the lawsuits would force a closing. Instead, most of those suits resulted in small payments, about $100 to each family.

This month, the cemetery's bankruptcy case officially closed. As the settlement checks have started to arrive, some families say the payments not only offer little closure, but also have opened up old wounds.

Lorene Franklin's family buried three relatives at Burr Oak, two sisters and a niece, Ruby Jean, who died as an infant. Over the years, when she visited their graves, Franklin said she suspected poor management. But she swallowed her concerns and kept quiet.

After the scandal surfaced, Franklin and her family couldn't locate their niece's burial plot. Besides the digging up of plots, the cemetery's records were so poorly kept that many families were unable to determine where their loved ones were buried.

"We called a lawyer to investigate more," said Franklin, 59, of Englewood. "It wasn't about money. We wanted to know if our loved ones had been moved. We wanted to find out for sure ourselves."

They were never able to locate their niece's grave, Franklin said. They didn't follow the lawsuit closely or monitor the bankruptcy hearings. Franklin said they completed paperwork when they were told to, and a check arrived in the mail earlier this year.

"It's almost an insult," said Loretta Franklin, Lorene Franklin's daughter. "It's like $100 to shut you up and not talk or think about it anymore. We can't have our relatives moved with that. If we wanted to appeal or fight, we'd have to pay a lawyer. It wasn't just unfair to my family, it wasn't fair" to anyone.

The settlement check reminded Lorene Franklin of all the nights she spent sleepless over the possibility that the remains of her relatives were disturbed.

"We paid for our people to be rested," she said, her voice rising with frustration. "I haven't erased them from my mind. I haven't forgotten them. The spotlight is gone. The pressure is gone. But how do you fix this hurt?"

Through Perpetua-Burr Oak Holdings' bankruptcy plan, about $2.3 million was earmarked to pay the cemetery's creditors, which included the thousands of victims who filed suit, according to court records and documents. How court officials, lawyers and activists arrived at the settlement amount for victims is complicated.

According to the cemetery's court-appointed trustee, Patricia Brown Holmes, because there were more than 5,000 litigants, the court decided that sending out modest payments was the fairest way to split the insurance money.

"We didn't have a lot of money," she said. "Nobody is going to be happy. Who wants to know that their loved one's grave was possibly desecrated? But I can guarantee you that not every grave out there was dug up. Most are still there. We decided to settle with everybody."