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Report: Cemeteries need tougher guidelines

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A task force released a report on cemetery oversight Tuesday as two suspects involved in the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal were released on bond.

The Cemetery Oversight Task Force was set up by Governor Pat Quinn after four workers at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., were accused of digging up and reselling graves. Two of those workers are now out on bond as the federal investigation continues.

In a report released Tuesday, the task force suggests tougher guidelines and oversight for Illinois cemeteries. Despite Gov. Quinn's efforts to downplay it, the report had some political undertones. Indirectly, the report said that the office of state comptroller Dan Hynes, who is now running against Quinn for governor, did not do an effective job regulating cemeteries.

"The state statute of Illinois gives the comptroller full authority to regulate cemeteries," said State Rep. Ken Dunkin, (D) Chicago. And, that, according to the task force, should change as soon as possible.

After a two-month investigation, the members concluded abuses, such as those alleged at the Burr Oak, would be less likely to happen again if oversight was transferred from the comptroller to the state of Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

"We believe that the entire division as best under professional regulation," said State Rep. Dan Brady, (R) Bloomington.

Other recommendations include requirements that cemetery employees be licensed and owners accept instruments other than cash for plots. The members also recommended using state field inspectors, who would do more than review the burial records.

"Having inspectors who actually go out the cemetery for the purpose of inspecting the cemetery," said Patricia Brown-Holmes, task force chairperson.

Inspectors from Hynes' office visited the Burr Oak grounds 12 times to audit the books-- apparently without noticing signs of alleged criminal activity.

"The markers being moved, the plots being twisted and contorted, to not see a half an acre of bones," said Dunkin.

>p> "It was so obvious. You had to be blind not to see it," said Zenobia Johnson, Burr Oak Historical Society.

In a statement, Comptroller Hynes accepted none of the blame for the Burr Oak situation.

"I appreciate that the task force is recommending many of the reforms that I've long advocated," he said in the statement.

Quinn did not use the moment to attack his Democratic primary rival. He would only accept the task force report and what it concluded.

"Right now, I think the regulation, oversight of the cemetery and burial industry and the practices come up short. This is getting the job done," said Quinn, (D) Illinois.

The Illinois General Assembly will have to pass laws to change how cemeteries are regulated. Bills should be introduced during the upcoming session in October.

Burr Oak Cemetery Scandal Developments Also on Tuesday, Perpetua Holdings, the company that owns Burr Oak Cemetery, filed for bankruptcy. As part of the filing, a judge ruled the company will be back in charge of the cemetery Wednesday.

The company faces dozens of lawsuits filed by families whose loved ones' remains were moved.

Also, two brothers charged in the case posted bond Tuesday. Terrence and Keith Nicks are among four people accused of digging up graves at the cemetery and then reselling the plots.

They were arrested in July when investigators raided the historic cemetery. Earlier this month, all four suspects pleaded not guilty to the charges.

One suspect, Maurice Dailey, bonded out of jail earlier.

The fourth suspect, Carolyn Towns, remains at Cook County Jail.

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