Burr Oak Cemetery ex-director – Carolyn Towns – sentenced to 12 Years in Prison! What did she do and Why? Comments are welcome!

July 10, 2011

Perhaps now this chapter of the history of Burr Oak Cemetery located outside of Chicago can be put to rest – much like people would want for those buried there.  Unfortunately Burr Oak, at least in recent day, has been anything but a place of rest rather it was a place where hundreds of graves were dug up and resold.

The former director of a Chicago-area cemetery Carolyn Towns, 51, who ran the Burr Oak Cemetery when the allegations surfaced in 2009, was sentenced to 12 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to all charges against her, including dismembering a human body and theft from a place of worship, according to state prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois.


In an effort to sell more property (grave spaces) prosecutors allege the grave diggers would exhume bodies, crushing vaults and caskets before dumping human remains at the cemetery’s trash site.  They then would  “double stack” graves, in other words  they would bury existing remains deeper into the ground before placing new remains in the same grave site.

In a CNN report the following is stated:

Towns “is very remorseful, not only for the pain she caused her family, but the families of people who have loved ones at Burr Oak,” defense attorney Susana Ortiz said, according to CNN affiliate WLS. “She accepted responsibility for the allegations in this case, and she would just like to put this behind her and move on with her life.”

As part of the grueling investigation, the CNN report goes on to say:

At the time, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart said the scene at the cemetery was disturbing. “I found bones out there,” he said. “I found individuals wandering aimlessly looking for their loved ones who can’t find them.”

The investigation also extended into “Babyland,” a section of the cemetery intended for children. Dart said he talked to countless women who could not find their children.

Authorities also discovered the original glass-faced casket belonging to 14-year-old Emmett Till, piled in a garage filled with lawn care equipment.


An Associated Press article provides a clearer explanation as to the motives behind the Burr Oak debacle.  “Prosecutors say Towns stole more than $100,000 from the corporation that owned Burr Oak by keeping the payments for burials and having workers stack bodies or dump remains in unmarked mass graves.” Some published reports say the amount taken was more than 300,000.

According to the Chicago Sun Times, “Towns’ attorney Richard S. Kling said the money she stole fed a terrible gambling addiction, and blinded her sense of what she knew was right.”

As a business ethics and fraud prevention speaker, and also a person who is actively involved in the Death-Care industry, I see, all to often, that when three things come together: (1) Need; (2) Opportunity and (3) Rationalization – it creates the PERFECT STORM for fraud.  To be clear, just because those three things are present does not mean that Fraud will occur, rather it means that the conditions are right for the ethical person to make the unethical choice that can lead to illegal activities and fraud.  As I speak to groups internationally the significant question that comes up is not what happened – that is generally evident by the facts, but rather what motivated the perpetrators behavior in the first place?

It appears that Towns had a need (according to her attorney – support a gambling habit).  Towns also had opportunity as the director of the cemetery she had the power to authorize the maintenance worker to perform inappropriate and illegal conduct (they could have refused, but often in subordinate roles they will not assuming they are protected by doing what their boss tells them).  Lastly, Towns was so likely caught up in the illusion she created that she had no ability to see reality – hence she could rationalize her behavior.

None of this makes what she did right!  Not at all, but rather it, in simple form, shows what might have contributed to her mindset that what she did was right.

The judge in this case got it right!

“The victims in this case are essentially the public,” he said. “The defendant’s actions in these crimes caused ­­— while not physical harm ­— I believe irreparable emotional and psychological harm.

“There is no way to repair the harm done to those grieving families and friends.”

If you were a victim of Carolyn Town actions…feel free to comment here so others can know your feelings!