Research cemeteries before buying plots

July 20, 2009

The crimes allegedly committed at Burr Oak Cemetery have shaken people's faith in the cemetery business.

No one wants to experience the nightmare Burr Oak families now face, where it's possible that their loved ones' graves were exhumed from the Alsip cemetery, their bodies dumped and the plots resold.

While the state considers whether to regulate cemeteries, is there a way to protect the graves of deceased loves ones, short of setting up a 24-hour "grave cam"?

No one suggests any of the Burr Oak families are at fault for what happened, but experts say there are a few pre-burial steps consumers can take to protect their families' eternal resting places.

The first step should be to check with the BBB. For the past three years, the South suburban Burr Oak Cemetery had an "F" rating from the bureau - the lowest rating possible - because of numerous customer complaints, said BBB representative Steve Bernas. The complaints included the inability to find a headstone and graves that weren't dug in time for the funerals.

Burr Oak Cemetery is one of five Chicago area cemeteries that currently have an "F" rating, Bernas said. He's not allowed to release the names, but said people can call or check online to inquire about specific places or request a businesses that has BBB accreditation.

After a burial, the only way to really keep tabs on a grave is to regularly visit. If you can't, find someone who can, suggests Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese, which manages 44 cemeteries. Szabelski has been named to oversee Burr Oak as investigators try to sort out what happened and correct the situation.

"It starts out with being proactive. If you're not visiting, is it that important to you?" he said. "We, as consumers, have a responsibility to check on people. Visiting our graves, visiting our hospitals, visiting our nursing homes ... sometimes we're too quick to turn it over to the professionals."

Szabelski also stressed the importance of planning in advance, and not waiting until two days before a funeral to shop for a cemetery plot. That way, families aren't forced to make rushed decisions while grieving.

Shopping for a burial plot should be done with the same rigor as buying a house, said Duane Marsh, executive director of the Funeral Directors Association. Look closely at the property. Listen to your gut feelings. Ask to see the plot so you know where it is and how to find it.

"Take a look. Is (the cemetery) cared for? Is the lawn mowed? Is it kept up? Look at the headstones," Marsh said.

Also ask questions. Talk with local funeral directors and see which cemeteries they like or dislike. Meet with the cemetery personnel, and make sure they're friendly and helpful.

"If people in the office don't give a hoot as to what's happening, I'd turn around and leave and go to the next cemetery," Szabelski said.

Just as you can't protect your home 100 percent from being burglarized, there's not a foolproof way to protect your family's graves from criminal activity. The people with relatives buried at Burr Oak might have taken all the precautions and still become victims, Marsh said.

"What happened (in Burr Oak) ... is not the norm," he said.

All in all, be sure to take caution when finding the right cemetery for your loved ones. As you should with any investment, make sure you check out the business with your local Better Business Bureau before you make a purchase.