v. – to labor, as by plowing or harrowing, upon (land) for the raising of crops; cultivate.
n. – a drawer, box, or the like, as in a shop or bank, in which money is kept
I’ve been thinking about death a lot this year, both personally, with the death of my beloved great-grandmother, and publicly, with the deaths of Steve McNair (I thought my cheers would give the Titans the one yard they needed.), Bea Arthur (if you cannot grasp or appreciate the genius of The Golden Girls, there’s no need for us to be friends, internet or otherwise) and Michael Jackson (still waiting for Moonwalker on DVD). Despite the emotions it compels, death often feels like a really abstract thing to me, like having a real job or money in my bank account. But I know death elicits tangible, visible responses, and I saw some of those reactions when I looked at a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times last week.
Burr Oak, an all-black burial area in Alsip, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, was supposed to be the final resting place of many famous and not-so-famous blacks, including Willie Dixon (played by Cedric the Entertainer in Cadillac Records), Otis Spann, Dinah Washington, and other folks my grandmother would claim to have known and/or met. Though it is an old cemetery and space, as it always is in such matters, is limited, blacks have been burying their loved one here for years, to keep family members together, to maintain tradition. It is now a crime scene.
About six weeks ago, Perpetua Inc., the Arizona-based owner of Burr Oak contacted local authorities because of some discrepancies. According to CNN (Why am I relying on their information when I know that accurately reporting on black people isn’t one of its strengths, especially with Black in America 2 mere days away? I don’t know.), Perpetua was concerned about some “financial irregularities.” Upon investigation, the Cook County Sheriff arrested 4 of the cemetery employees, alleging that they were involved in the resale of graves. The sheriff’s office claims that the cemetery office manager, Carolyn Towns, paid three other employees overtime wages to disinter several hundred graves. According to reports, they would then discard the bodies in an area near the cemetery and resell the plots. Investigators found a family of possums living in Emmett Till’s original casket, and also allege that money for the planned Till memorial at the cemetery had also been stolen. They made about $300,000.
Part of me is alarmed, surprised, disturbed. $300,000? (What’s 300,000 divided by 4? I suck at math.) That’s all it took? That’s all it took to get someone to dig up the bodies of somebody’s loved one(s), of old people and babies, and discard them and their headstones as if they were worthless rubbish? And Emmett Till, dude? Emmett Till? That’s not Emmitt Smith or Emmet Otter. That’s Emmett Till. There are poems, songs about Emmett Till. People were compelled to action because of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was in Jet. $300,000 (divided by 4) was all it took? For real? For CREAM? Damn.
But maybe I shouldn’t be so alarmed or surprised. Isn’t this, on some level, some poorly organized, low budget version of some of Wal-Mart’s practices? Just a few weeks before this story broke, dirt from historic American Indian grounds in Alabama was removed by workers so that it could be used as raw material for a new Sam’s Club. Last month, the Wintu tribe dedicated a statue in front a Wal-Mart in northern California—because the site used to be a burial ground for their people. The remains will be reburied. Somewhere else. Always somewhere else.
These instances aren’t entirely analogous, but they are not so dissimilar that they are beyond compare. What I think both examples do have in common however is some weird, 21st century rendering of the politics of Manifest Destiny, replicating the way that whole hustle has treated certain groups of color.
We can trace a lot in the story of Native Americans, and one of the things we can track is a theme of dislocation. Possession of Native land has to be in the top five of American capitalistic desire, right? Behind what? Thomas Kincade prints and Big Macs? For land, the Indians can just go somewhere else. Always somewhere else. We will give them a plaque–eventually. And as fucked up as it is, those four cemetery workers did something really American, really western, too: they understood the black body—even a dead one—as a commodity, assessed the situation and came up with a price. There is always a seller; there is always a buyer. Always. It’s an appalling story, but the premise is thoroughly unoriginal. They just didn’t bother to put up a statue. But who can blame them? That bench by the road is barely a year old.
Maybe now we know where the line is. Now we know where one cannot cross. If you’re going to disinter, disrespect those who are no longer living, well, somebody better be saving a bunch of money by switching to Geico dough on paper towels and short sets. After all, it is a recession, and not many of us can afford much. And apparently we’ve never been rich enough to properly honor (many of) our dead.