In a private cemetery in small-town Arkansas, a woman single-handedly buried and gave funerals to more than 40 gay men during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when their families wouldn’t claim them.
One person who found the courage to push the wheel is Ruth Coker Burks. Now a grandmother living a quiet life in Rogers, in the mid-1980s Burks took it as a calling to care for people with AIDS at the dawn of the epidemic, when survival from diagnosis to death was sometimes measured in weeks. For about a decade, between 1984 and the mid-1990s and before better HIV drugs and more enlightened medical care for AIDS patients effectively rendered her obsolete, Burks cared for hundreds of dying people, many of them gay men who had been abandoned by their families. She had no medical training, but she took them to their appointments, picked up their medications, helped them fill out forms for assistance, and talked them through their despair. Sometimes she paid for their cremations. She buried over three dozen of them with her own two hands, after their families refused to claim their bodies. For many of those people, she is now the only person who knows the location of their graves.
“When Burks was a girl, she said, her mother got in a final, epic row with Burks’ uncle. To make sure he and his branch of the family tree would never lie in the same dirt as the rest of them, Burks said, her mother quietly bought every available grave space in the cemetery: 262 plots. They visited the cemetery most Sundays after church when she was young, Burks said, and her mother would often sarcastically remark on her holdings, looking out over the cemetery and telling her daughter: ‘Someday, all of this is going to be yours.’
‘I always wondered what I was going to do with a cemetery,’ she said. ‘Who knew there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?’”