Bad burials continue to haunt Burr Oak Cemetery

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ALSIP, Ill. -- In 2009, the Cook County Sheriff uncovered a scheme in which graves were dug up, body parts were discarded and graves were resold. Now, at least one family found those problems from years ago mean their plans for a final resting place aren’t so final after all.

Mary Lee Northington lived 97 years, surviving her husband and one of her eight children. At her funeral, there was peace in knowing she could finally rest in peace.

“She always wanted to be buried next to Jimmy, her husband,” James “Skip” Northington, III said about his mother.  “That’s all she ever wanted.”

Flashback: The Burr Oak Cemetery scandal

In the early 1980s the family purchased three plots, side-by-side in the Locust Lane section of Burr Oak Cemetery. That’s when Mrs. Northington’s husband and son were buried there.

“She knew that when she passed on, her spot was right there next to dad.  I know she took comfort in that,” Lillie Herron, her daughter, said.

When Mrs. Northington died last month, the family contacted the cemetery, deed in hand. They said  they were told their mom couldn’t be buried in the family plot because it was still a crime scene.

“This is not the sheriff, not the state not the court preventing burials from being completed,” Cook County Sheriff’s detective Jason Moran said.  “It’s a business decision that the new owners have made. “

The Northington’s didn’t take “no” for an answer.  And after pressure, the cemetery relented to open the grave.

“They swore me up and down they couldn’t touch anything in that section but they did and come to find out: There’s another coffin that’s protruding in my mother’s site about six to seven inches.  So there’s not enough room to bury her,” James Northington said.

Cemetery managers don’t dispute this.  They said poorly performed burials years ago have led to a space crunch in this section of the cemetery.

“Burials were made that were undocumented, graves were sold and never recorded so there could be additional burials in the ground that you’re not suspecting,” Roman Szabelski of Catholic Cemeteries said.

He was appointed to oversee Burr Oak Cemetery after the scandal was exposed.  Szbaelski found the problems didn’t end with the illegal reselling of graves: The former operators also didn’t take care to measure the spacing between graves, often measuring distance by footstep rather than tape measure.

Fast forward nearly a decade and those problems continue to haunt the cemetery.

“You might be able to go there and find you can make a burial no problem.  Or you could go and find you only have 20 inches,” Szabelski said.

That’s what happened to Mrs. Northington’s plot.  A “documented” burial done poorly, years ago, intruding on her final resting place.

Kevin Carter and his family now own and operate Burr Oak Cemetery.

“We really believe we can make a difference at Burr Oak,” Carter said. “That’s what we set out to do.  Definitely not to harm people in any way.  And definitely not to create chaos and public outcry as happened before.”

The Carters said it’s not economically – or physically – feasible to exhume a person who was buried 30 years ago so that a family can be buried next to each other.