‘Cemetery Angel’ Ruth Coker Burks on Three Decades of Caring for AIDS Patients

Ruth Coker Burkes

We continue our celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month with the story of Ruth Coker Burks, who was a young mom in her early twenties living in Arkansas when the AIDS crisis first gripped the country in the early 1980s. After a chance encounter with a dying gay man afflicted with the disease, she began caring for AIDS patients, many of whom had been abandoned by their families, a fearful medical community, and the church. She also buried many of those she helped in her family’s cemetery, sometimes even digging their graves herself, earning the title, “the cemetery angel.”  Read below to learn more about her incredible story and what a powerful difference one person can make…

Katie Couric: Tell me about how you first started caring for HIV/ AIDS patients back in 1984…

Ruth Coker Burks: My friend had cancer, and she was having reconstructive surgery. When I was visiting her I got to know the nurses and doctors, and I thought they were all my friends. In the wing my friend was on, there was a door with a big red bag on it. “Don’t enter,” the whole warning. So I asked about the room, and the nurses said “don’t you dare go in that room, he’s got the gay disease. We don’t even know what it is. Don’t you go in there.” And I couldn’t stand it. This man’s food trays were lying outside of his door on the floor. His breakfast tray, and his lunch tray, and his dinner were sitting out there, and this man was too sick to go out and get them, and the nurses were out in the hallway drawing straws to see who would have to go in and check on him. So I went into the room. And I walked up to this man–his name was Jimmy. I took his hand in mine, and I was rubbing his arm, and I said, “is there anything I can do for you?” And he wanted his mama. And I thought, “well I can do that,” so I walked up to the nurse’s station, and I said “the guy in that room wants his mother. Can we call her?” And they all backed up like I was Satan. And they said “that man’s mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody is coming.” One of the nurses gave me his mother’s phone number, so I called her. And she said “I don’t have a son. My son died years ago to me. He was a sinner. I don’t know the man who’s there but when he dies, don’t call me back.” So I went back in his room and I didn’t know what I was going to tell him. But when I took his hand, he reached over to me and said “oh mama, I knew you’d come.” And he started sobbing, but he was so dehydrated there weren’t even any tears. He was coming in and out of consciousness and was so close to death. I ended up staying with him for thirteen hours until he took his last breath on this earth.

Ruth, that’s such a heartbreaking story and only the beginning of what would become a lifetime of acts of kindness on your part. Tell us how you came to be known as the cemetery angel?

My mother had gotten into an argument with her oldest brother, and she went and bought 262 grave spaces in the family cemetery so he and his family couldn’t be buried with the rest of us. And I’m an only child, and every Sunday we would go out and she would say “someday all of this is going to be yours.” And I’m an only child, so I’m thinking, what am I going to do with a whole cemetery? And who would think that fifteen years later, I would be caring for these men whose own parents weren’t even willing to bury them when they died. So I buried them.

When Jimmy died, no cemetery would take him. So I went out to my family’s cemetery with my daughter, I think she was two at the time. And we went out and she had her binky in her mouth, and I dug the grave myself with a shovel and a post hole digger. I couldn’t even get anyone to come dig a hole for me.

With each of my men, I’d dig the graves myself and say a prayer. I couldn’t get a single preacher in my hometown to say a prayer over a mound of dirt. I asked every one of them but nobody would do it. I just couldn’t believe that people could be that cruel. Most of the men are hidden in the cemetery, because I didn’t want anyone to deface them. Jimmy is buried on top of my Daddy’s grave. I didn’t want anybody to know they were there. So I buried them on top of my grandmother’s grave, different places like that.

How did your community react when they found out what you were doing?

I was completely shunned. I was shunned by my church, by the congregation, by the town, and I was the only one who was ringing this bell, saying people are dying. It was like in Dancing with Wolves, when Kevin Costner gets the fort all set up for the rest of the cavalry to come, and he’s waiting and waiting and they never come. That’s how I was. I thought if I just told people what I was seeing that they would help. But nobody wanted any part of it. I had one very prominent doctor say to me “I will tell you here and now, I will never have an AIDS patient in my office.”

We had a minister at my church, and I was on the finance committee- I was the first woman on the finance committee and I was so proud of having that position in the church. And I asked if I could have one of the Sunday school classrooms to use it for support meetings once a month. And he said, in front of everyone, “surely you aren’t talking about bringing those people into this church are you?” And I said “Oh no, I’m not talking about bringing those people into this church. Instead I’d like to walk those people across your new thirty thousand dollar lawn, and into your new three hundred thousand dollar home, and sit their asses on the forty thousand dollars worth of new furniture this church just bought you! That’s what I’d like to do with those people!” It was just unfathomable to me.