0708dv_illinois_graves_resold[1]Alsip isn’t the leafy, angsty Chicago suburb of a John Hughes movie. If people know about it, it’s probably because they have been to a wedding at the Chateau Bu-Sche’.   One reason that few people live in Alsip is that it is surrounded by cemeteries: Holy Sepulchre. Chapel Hills. Hazel Green. St. Casimir’s. Oak Hill. And, of course, Burr Oak. Burr Oak Cemetery was supposed to be the final resting place for generations of African-Americans from Chicago, but it has turned into one of the oddest, and most pathetic, scandals in the odd, scandal-ridden death care industry.

At Burr Oak, it is alleged, the cemetery manager and three of the people on staff would dig up bodies, dump them out back, then re-sell the plots for new burials. They accepted cash, the medium of trade beloved of cheapskates and crooks alike, preying on families that were upset and just wanted to honor their deceased relative with a burial at an historic cemetery.

Most cultures and religions have a list of requirements for handling the dead, designed to ensure their passage into the next world or to keep the family and friends occupied, out of bed, and interacting with the community during a dark time in their lives. Whether you prefer the theological or the sociological interpretation, there are rules that everyone in a respectful society should honor. And, there are legitimate public health reasons for having dead bodies burned or buried in a few days’ time.

Honor can be expensive.  The National Funeral Directors Association puts the average cost of a U.S. funeral in 2006 at $7323. That doesn’t include the burial, which range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on where the cemetery is located and what type of marker you want. The Social Security Administration gives a beneficiary’s next-of-kin $255 to cover burial expenses, which is at the low end. (One effect of the current economic crisis is that local governments are being saddled with more burial costs.)

Those expenses cover the business of operating the cemetery, which is different from most other industries. It is, at heart, a real estate business. These little pieces of land are being sold, and once they are gone, there are no more. Families that want to be buried together, whether out of sentiment, religion, or practicality will often buy their plots well in advance of their death. Depending on the practices of their religion, they may even have the gravestone made up with a blank space for the date of death. That land has to be maintained forever, so part of the cost of the plot goes toward long-term operations. That money should be held in a trust account that generates just enough income to pay for the groundskeepers, and not much more.

Once the cemetery fills up, it goes into maintenance mode. But who knows when it will fill up? Because some families buy space to handle people for many generations, it can take a long time. Managing money for perpetuity isn’t that difficult, but making sure someone cuts the grass and keeps teenagers from breaking in on Hallowe’en is a bit more challenging. But in Illinois, as in most states, cemetery regulation covers the money only. Instead of the cemetery owners having to deal with the costs of regulatory compliance, the taxpayers of Cook County, the State of Illinois, and the Federal government will have to pay for the costs of investigating and remediating the scene at Burr Oak.

There is not as much customer oversight as there is in other industries because a few years after someone dies, no one comes to visit. It’s not out of disrespect; it’s just that people move on with their lives. The last time I went to my maternal grandparents’ grave was probably 15 years ago, and it was to show my sister where it was. I still miss my grandparents, some days terribly so, but their graves don’t factor into my memories. (I tried to find my paternal grandparents’ graves on the same visit but could not, as a tree that used to be there is now gone.)

The situation is a fraudster’s dream. You have distraught people trying to honor someone they love. You have an unexpected cost that may be covered with a cash collection from family and friends. The family is purchasing something that they may not pay any attention to after a few years.  The owners may be part of a faceless chain headquartered a thousand miles away. Based on what we know now about the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal, it seems that four people took advantage of the absentee owner’s limited oversight and the customers’ pain.

Let’s hope that’s all it is, because otherwise, an ugly case will become even uglier.

About the Author

Ann Logue

Ann Logue is a freelance writer and consulting analyst who is fascinated by business and technology. She has a particular interest in regulatory issues and corporate governance. She is the author of "Emerging Markets for Dummies" (Wiley 2011), “Socially Responsible Investing for Dummies” (Wiley 2009), “Day Trading for Dummies” (Wiley 2007), and “Hedge Funds for Dummies” (Wiley 2006), and has written for Barron’s, Institutional Investor, and Newsweek Japan, among other publications. As an editor and ghostwriter, she worked on a book published by the International Monetary Fund and another by a Wall Street currency strategiest. She is a lecturer in finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her current career follows 12 years of experience as an investment analyst. She holds a B.A. from Northwestern University, an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. How's that for deathly dull?

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