As a hospice nurse, Patricia Tyson counsels people on the brink of death. But after work she's become something of a private eye as she tries to get someone to fix up the Restvale Cemetery. "What's going on at that cemetery is a disgrace," she says. "I shouldn't even call it a cemetery. It's more like a landfill."
Tyson first became aware of Restvale back in the early 1990s, when her cousin Rita Ward was buried there. The black-owned cemetery, which is at the intersection of 115th and Laramie in Alsip, is fairly well-known among black south-siders--blues legend Muddy Waters, for example, is buried there.
Over the next few years four more of Tyson's relatives were buried there, including her uncle Scobey Ward, her aunt Ruth Ward, and her great-uncle Robert Stringer. On March 25, 2000, her father, Moses Tyson, a World War II veteran, joined them. "I don't remember exactly why we buried him there," she says. "It was probably because his relatives are there, or probably because the funeral home referred us there."
In any event, she says, she had no reason to object to his burial at Restvale. "At my father's funeral I didn't see what sort of shape it was in," she says. "You know how it is at funerals--the canopy was up, we're grieving. Also it was sort of raining that day. Obviously I was distracted. I didn't get a good look around."
But she looked closer when she visited her father's grave a few weeks later. "I noticed this chain-link fence not far behind my father's grave," she says. "Behind that fence was a big mound of dirt, about six feet high. There were boards laid across the ground. The gravestones had this tumbledown look, as if they were off base."
She and her mother went to the office in the middle of the cemetery. "We complained about the setting to a staff member," she says. "We even questioned if that's where he was buried. I mean, it was almost as though they had moved him or something. I don't remember seeing the fence at his funeral. I know if we had seen it we would have complained right away. Maybe it was concealed by the canopy, or maybe we were just so distracted. Whatever, the staffer told us not to worry--the fence was going to be fixed."
But when Tyson came back on Memorial Day the fence was still there. "I was really getting upset," she says. "My mother paid good money to Restvale--$1,325--to have him buried there. We still have a copy of that check. And it was disrespectful to the dead."
Again she went to the office. This time she met with Willie Carter, Restvale's owner, who happened to be there. "I told Carter that the area is deplorable and the fence is unacceptable," she says. "I asked him what he was going to do about it. He said they were going to replace the fence. He was cordial. He thanked us for letting him know. He said he wasn't aware of the fence. I thought, 'Strange. How could he not be aware of the fence? It's right there.'"
Carter did replace the chain-link fence with a wooden one. But as the months wore on, Tyson says, things deteriorated. "There was always a big mound of dirt behind the fence, and when it rained the dirt ran under the fence and onto the gravestones, sometimes covering up the names," she says. "Plus there were these sinkholes where the earth just fell in. I guess that's why they laid the boards down--because you could fall into the hole. I began to look around at the other graves, and it was weird. Some of the gravestones were right on top of each other, no more than a few inches apart. I thought, 'How can you have bodies buried so close together?'"
On March 18 she went to the cemetery with her mother. "It was really bad," she says. "The fence had broken down because of the weight of all the dirt that was behind it. We had brought some disposable cameras. I took six rolls of film."
Tyson says she also saw some cemetery workers moving flowers that she and her mother had planted on Moses's grave. "They were picking up the flowers and putting them in separate piles," she says. "We asked them, 'Why are you taking up the flowers?' They said they were just doing what they were told. I went over to the office, and I saw this sign posted that said, 'Cemetery cleanup in April, June, and October.' So I started taking pictures of that sign, because this was March and they were cleaning up the flowers."
While she snapped her pictures, an employee came over. "She said, 'Why are you taking pictures?'" says Tyson. "I didn't say anything. I just started taking pictures of her. Then another fellow came out, and he started following us around, telling me, 'You can't take pictures.' I told him I take pictures all the time when I come here. And he said, 'No, our manager said you have to stop taking pictures.' I asked him if he had it in writing that photos are not allowed. He shrugged. It was bizarre. I figured they knew who I was. They might not know my name, but they recognized my car. They know I'm the lady who's been complaining. My mom was a little concerned. She was worried that they were going to call the police. I said, 'They can't arrest us for taking pictures in a cemetery. What's wrong with that?' Whoever heard of not being able to take pictures in a cemetery? People are always taking pictures in cemeteries. That's one of the things people do when they come to cemeteries. I imagine there are always people coming up to Restvale to take pictures of Muddy Waters's grave."
Tyson says she was disheartened after that visit. "We come there to remember and to pay tribute, and then when you see the dirt and the mud and the fence and the gravestones haphazardly placed it does something to your spirit. I was really upset by some children's graves I saw not far from my father's grave. They were obliterated by mud. I had to scrape away the mud with a little stick to see the markings. There's no way of knowing if it's a grave at all."
She decided to make an official complaint. "I did a little digging, and I found out that cemeteries are overseen by [state comptroller Dan] Hynes's office," she says. After a few phone calls she wound up talking to Ron Schwingen, who's on the comptroller's staff. "Ron said he would look into things."
According to Tyson, in early April, shortly after she talked to Schwingen, Carter called her mother. "He offered her free flowers for the ones his employees dug up," she says. "My mother said she didn't want free flowers. This isn't about free flowers. This is about keeping the cemetery clean. He said he wasn't aware of the cemetery being in bad shape. It's amazing what he's not aware of at his own cemetery."
On April 12 Tyson took me to the cemetery, which is divided into north and south sections. The south portion is grassier and better tended--that's where Muddy Waters is buried. Tyson's father is buried in the north section.
She parked on an access road and walked over to her father's grave. The wooden fence was now upright, but a large mound of dirt was still piled behind it. Some of the dirt had spilled beneath the fence, and the ground was muddy. Some gravestones were covered in dirt, others were wedged close together. Some were tilted at strange angles, as though they'd been moved. It had rained the day before, so large puddles were everywhere.
As Tyson stood before her father's grave, a large man wearing a red cap and holding a walkie-talkie came over and asked, "Can I help you?" He was about 20 feet away.
"No," she said.
He watched as she walked to look at some of the other graves. "Need some help finding your loved ones?" he asked.
"If I do I'll ask," she said, scraping away dirt to reveal a gravestone.
He frowned and moved a little closer. "You aren't visiting your loved one," he said.
Tyson looked up. "How do you know that? You don't know who I have buried here."
"I know you don't have no one buried there," he said.
"I beg your pardon," she replied. "You don't know that."
When she returned to her car, he followed, keeping 20 feet between them. Then he watched as she drove to the southern end of the cemetery. When she got out of her car to look at some of the larger gravestones there, another man in a compact car pulled up and watched her for a while before driving off.
State officials say they're attempting to forge a compromise between Tyson and Carter. "Our office called Willie Carter, and he offered to pay for the new flowers," says Alan Henry, a spokesman for Hynes. "He also said the mud situation would be fixed when it stopped raining." Henry says Carter also offered to move Moses Tyson's body if Patricia wanted. "This is a small example of what we do all the time," says Henry. "If someone has a complaint, then we call the cemetery owner and try to come up with a resolution."
Carter says he's more than willing to discuss the matter with Tyson. "The problem is she won't talk to me," he says. "She'll talk to everyone else. She talked to the state, she talked to you. But she won't talk to me. I would very much like to meet her--I may have met her once, though I can't remember. I meet so many people. If Ms. Tyson's not happy where her loved one is, maybe we can work it out. But we can't work it out if she doesn't talk to me."
He also insists that the section around Moses Tyson's grave is in acceptable condition. "Are the graves too close?" he says. "Yes, some are close, but they're not too close. There's no gravestone right on top of her father's grave, so why should she complain? I know there's dirt. But there's always dirt at a cemetery left over from when we dig the graves. We put the dirt in a pile before we haul it away. That's why we put up the fence--to block the dirt from the site. Some of the dirt's gotten under the fence. We have cleaned up the dirt."
Carter says Tyson is free to visit the cemetery anytime she wants. "Some of my guys may have made a little mistake in the things they said," he says. "Some of my guys removed the flowers before April. I'm sorry about that. I offered to pay her for the flowers. I'm offering to move her loved one's grave. Still she's unhappy. What more can I do?"
Tyson says she doesn't want her father moved. "I don't want my father disinterred," she says. "For me this is not about where my father's buried there. It's about the principle of how that cemetery's run. Even if they were to move my father far away from that fence and that dirt I still wouldn't feel right about going there knowing what it's like. There's something wrong about that cemetery. Moving my father's not going to change that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.