Cemetery desecration unearths mother’s pain

Before this month, Jacqui Abrams had visited Burr Oak Cemetery only nine times -- once for each of her relatives buried at the historic black graveyard in suburban Chicago.

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Jacqui Abrams hold a photo of her fifth child, John Henry Abrams. Abrams has nine relatives buried at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

SOPHIA TAREEN, Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO (AP) — Before this month, Jacqui Abrams had visited Burr Oak Cemetery only nine times — once for each of her relatives buried at the historic black graveyard in suburban Chicago.

Great-grandma died in 1962. Mother was laid to rest in 1991. And somewhere among the tens of thousands of graves were the two infant sons she buried decades ago: Robert and John “Peanut” Abrams, nicknamed for his small size and light brown skin color.

Then came allegations that former Burr Oak workers dug up bodies and resold plots in an elaborate moneymaking scheme, and the 64-year-old Abrams found herself back before the cemetery’s black gates, reliving their deaths all at once.

“To deal with something like this is unconscionable,” she said. “I buried them once. This is the same thing. It’s another enactment all over again.”

While investigators determine how deep the cemetery scandal went — multiple bodies buried in graves, altered records and human skeletons tossed in a vacant lot — thousands like Abrams are forced to relive some of the most painful moments of their lives while they wait for answers. Investigators have created a database of relatives’ inquiries and are documenting each grave with digital photographs.

In the past three weeks, authorities have received about 60,000 complaints and requests for information from people with family members buried at the 150-acre cemetery where civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till is buried. Four workers were charged in the alleged scheme, which authorities say stretches back at least four years and netted $300,000.

The morning after the allegations became public, Abrams left her Chicago apartment, drove nearly 20 miles to the cemetery in Alsip and spent three hours walking through graves where the plot numbers didn’t appear to follow numeric order. The map county workers gave her seemed useless.

She had never visited the graves after the funerals because she doesn’t believe in mourning the dead that way. A woman of Christian faith, she quotes the Bible to show her reasoning: “Let the dead bury their dead.”

The sun beat down that hot July day as she looked from headstone to headstone, hoping to find her babies, her great-grandmother, her mother, her aunt, two cousins, her sister-in-law and her sister-in-law’s child. Some of the markers were sunken into the ground and weathered, making them difficult to read. In other places, the grass around graves appeared to have been damaged, trampled or even burned.

Hundreds of others were in her same situation. They waited in lines to talk to county workers or simply searched on their own at the cemetery, which has since been temporarily closed and declared a crime scene.

The headstone of Abrams’ aunt, who died in 2006, seemed to have disappeared from the place where she remembered it was located. She couldn’t find her great-grandmother’s, either. And she couldn’t remember exactly where her babies were buried — that part of the cemetery looked much different, it now had shrubs and trees.

“I just want to know where my family is. I want to know their bodies are all right,” Abrams said. “I don’t want nobody else on top of them. If there is somebody on top of them I can take that better than them not being there at all.”

She was overwhelmed with the memories the cemetery brought back.

Abrams married her grade-school sweetheart and they quickly started a family. She had two boys and then her third child, Robert Leonard Abrams, was born in 1965.

It was early morning when she came into Robert’s room to an unnatural silence and found the 4-month-old lifeless in his crib.

Only immediate family attended his burial at a plot near the back of Burr Oak. Abrams and her husband couldn’t afford a headstone.

Five years later, it happened again. Four-month-old John Henry Abrams died on New Year’s Day in 1970.

A worn, black-and-white photograph shows the sleeping child with tufts of thick black hair and a tiny fist enclosed by his face. The doctor called him “Peanut” and the name stuck.

Days after her cemetery search, tears rolled down Abrams’ face as she recalled Peanut’s death. It was that experience that prompted her to stop having children.

“I tried not to dwell on it,” she said of the deaths of her children. “But it hurt for a very long time.”

Daily prayer, church and the Bible got Abrams through.

Again, Abrams finds herself trying not to dwell on past pain. But sometimes, she wonders how the two boys would have grown up and how they would get along with their two brothers and two foster sisters.

“I have high hopes that every last one of my people will be found,” Abrams said. “That’s the way I have to look at it right now. It does make me a little nervous and a little on edge that they may not be there. But I’m praying.”

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