When life ends for our friends and family, many of us are faced with the sad process of burying the remains of our loved ones—and often inheriting the assets of the deceased. For an Arkansas woman, Ruth Coker Burks, what she would inherit from her mother changed her life forever.
“My mother got in a huge argument with her brother, my uncle, when I was 10, and in a fit of rage, my mom bought all the remaining spaces in the family cemetery so he and his family couldn’t be buried with the rest of us. That was the meanest thing she could think to settle the score,” said Ruth.
Shortly after the passing of her mother, Ruth learned that she inherited all those burial plots. “What am I gonna do with a cemetery? You know, a nice ring or watch, but not a cemetery!”
The burial plots, all 262 of them, sat unused for years until the AIDS crisis hit the small city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. “Death and I got to be old friends,” Ruth would later recall.
In the early 1980’s clinics, physicians and researchers were declaring an epidemic with an illness that was devastating families across the nation: AIDS. Often called “gay cancer” the AIDS epidemic swept the nation.
“See, people think that the AIDS epidemic happened in San Francisco, or it happened in New York, it didn’t happen in the center of the country. But it did,” said Coker Burks. In 1984, researchers identified that HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) caused AIDS. And just a year later, in 1985, there were over 25,000 reported cases of AIDS worldwide. The rates of infection increased exponentially year after year.
Ruth Coker Burks recalls walking into University Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas hospital to visit a friend. It was during that visit that Ruth noticed a hospital room with a big red bag covering the door. Little did Ruth know, the person inside that room would change her life forever.
The door with the red bag remained quietly undisturbed down the hall from where Ruth was at. Rarely did the nurses enter. There were no visitors; there was no attention—and inside was a young man. “I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on the patient. It’d be: ‘Best two out of three,’ and then they’d say, ‘Can we draw again?’ ” recalled Ruth.
In her mind, she knew the patient likely suffered from GRID as it was known at the time: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It was a disease she had made herself familiar with, because Ruth’s own brother was gay, and she feared his eventual demise would come through the disease. Whether because of curiosity or—as she believes today, some higher power moving her, Burks eventually disregarded the warnings on the red door and snuck into the room. Ruth needed to know who was in that room, and why the nursing staff and no family dared enter the bedside.
The skeletal patient, known as “Jimmy” was the mysterious man in that room.
What she did next was documented in the short film, titled “Ruth”.
Ruth recalled, “He was so frail and so pale and so near death. And he weighed less than 100 pounds. And you couldn’t really tell him from the sheets on the bed.”
The dying Jimmy wanted to see his mother, but she was not there. The truth was simple: no one wanted to be there with Jimmy, except for Ruth.
A scene from the film depicted the conversation Ruth had with the attending nurse of the hospital:
Nurse: “Did you go into that room? Have you lost your mind? Do you know what’s happening?”
Ruth: “I’d like his mother’s phone number. He wants his mother.”
Nurse: “Honey, his mother is not coming. He’s been in that room for six weeks and nobody is coming.”
Ruth recalled asking the nursing staff for the phone number to Jimmy’s mother again and again.
She was denied.
Unwilling to take no for an answer, she finally convinced one of the nurses to give her the number. She then called Jimmy’s mom. Ruth was only able to speak to Jimmy’s mother for a moment before the woman on the other end of the line hung up on her.
“I called her back,” Burks said. “I said, ‘If you hang up on me again, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.’ Then I had her attention.”
“Jimmy was a sinner”, the woman told Burks. Jimmy’s mother didn’t know what was wrong with him and she didn’t care. She wouldn’t come, as he was already dead to her as far as she was concerned. She said she wouldn’t claim his body when he died.
It was a hymn Ruth would hear again and again over the next decade.
After that telephone conversation, Ruth returned to Jimmy’s room and stayed with him for 13 hours until he took his final breath. Jimmy peacefully passed away. Ruth recalled, “He needed me. His mother had already abandoned him.”
As was promised, no one claimed Jimmy’s body. So Ruth paid for his cremation and put his ashes in a small, used cookie jar she had at home. From there, she honorably cared for Jimmy’s remains and interred them in the cemetery that she owned.
Jimmy became the first of hundreds of men and women Ruth would end up helping shortly after their final hours of life. Most of the dead were buried at her expense, and often buried literally with her own two hands.
It was said of Ruth that she was the “One woman AIDS help center.” She spent her time driving AIDS patients to doctor appointments, pharmacies and research facilities. She often spent her time filling out death certificates and helping patients declare their last and final testaments.
Eventually, Ruth Cocker Burks took on an advisory role on AIDS in the Clinton administration and was often called “Cemetery Angel” or more affectionately, “St. Ruth.” These were titles she often shied away from. Adulation was never the goal for Ruth. Churches and families across the United States were abandoning AIDS patients and Ruth was their savior.
People started calling, asking for her help. “They just started coming,” she said. “Word got out that there was this kind of wacko woman in Hot Springs who wasn’t afraid. They would tell them, ‘Just go to her. Don’t come to me. Here’s the name and number. Go.’… I was their hospice. Their gay friends were their hospice. Their companions were their hospice.” These victims, mostly men, were often left to die alone.
When asked if this abandonment met the threshold of “love thy neighbor”? Ruth quietly whispered, “No, it didn’t.”
Religious leaders scoffed at Ruth’s desire to help the AIDS community. They said her kindness and advocacy was promoting promiscuity and furthering the spread of infection. The KKK burned crosses in her front yard on three different occasions. Regardless of the pressure, Ruth continued to be an ally.
The lifesaving (and life giving) care that Ruth and others gave in the 1980s and 1990s has mostly been forgotten, partly because so many of those she knew back then have died. Ruth is the first to claim that she’s not the only one who did that work, but she’s one of the few who survived. And so she has become the keeper of memory.
Before she passes away herself, Ruth would like to see a memorial erected in the cemetery. Something to tell people the story. A plaque. A stone. A listing of the names of the unremembered dead that lie there—something that tells the story of those who peacefully rest there.
“Someday,” she said, “I’d love to get a monument that says: This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died.”
KNOW YOUR HIV STATUS
You can’t rely on symptoms to know whether you have HIV. You can look and feel perfectly healthy and still have HIV.
THE ONLY WAY TO KNOW IS TO GET TESTED
Getting tested gives you the knowledge you need to protect yourself and your partners. If you learn you are HIV-positive, you can start treatment that will help you stay healthy and live longer. You can also take steps to reduce the risk of passing HIV on to others.
Testing is often offered for free. For more information visit your local AIDS Foundation, public health office or online at www.HIV.gov