I’m going to start off by talking about something a little controversial: religion. As a young woman, I’m still trying to figure out what I believe. I have an immense amount of faith but in what I’m still trying to figure out. There is one thing, however, that I absolutely one hundred percent believe in: angels are real.
Now, I’m not trying to be all preachy or anything. This is just my own belief that works for me and I’m sharing it because our subject today is one of those living angels whose other-worldly compassion transcends all of my worries, my doubts, my fears or any bad thing in my life.
Another angel I’ve found was this guy who my family called “Happy Runner.” We would see him running along the trails in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains where we walked Jovie (see cute pictures of her in my Artemisia Gentileschi post). He would come speeding up a hill like a superhero, not panting, not struggling, moving faster than any runner I had seen before. And yet he still had this smile.
He smiled like we were his long last family that he was embracing, like seeing us in that moment made him the happiest man alive. I can’t fully explain how powerful his happiness was in our lives, especially since we saw him the summer before the 2016 election when tensions were a little high. After that summer, we never saw him again. It seriously was like he disappeared after fulfilling his mission: giving my family faith in the world when we needed it the most.
All of this to say that when I say someone is an angel, I take it very seriously. So that’s how you know Ruth Coker Burks is the real deal.
She was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas around 1969 to one of the most hysterical women I have ever heard of. Her mother got into this huge fight with Ruth’s uncle and decided that she didn’t want to be buried in the same dirt as him or his side of the family so she secretly bought every available grave plot, 262 in total, in Files Cemetery, the half acre of red dirt that every Burks had been buried in for a century and a half.
Her mother also attended her uncle’s funeral, at a different cemetery, obviously, and fired off roman candles above the hearse. I mean, I love this woman.
She would take Ruth to Files Cemetery on Sundays after church and say to her, “Someday, all of this is going to be yours.”
Ruth wasn’t exactly sure what she was going to do with a cemetery but didn’t give much thought to it. She grew up in Arkansas, became a childhood friend to Bill Clinton, incidentally, and in her early twenties, had a daughter and became a single mom. She might have had 262 grave plots but she did not have much money.
In the early 1980s, the AIDS epidemic began to reach Arkansas. At that point, not much was known about the disease and was actually called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). There was little treatment or medication available and, to make matters much worse, there was a huge stigma against patients affected. If somebody was discovered to have the disease, their closest friends shunned them. People would say “Don’t touch them or even talk to them.” If a person so much as lost a few pounds, many people would stop associating with them completely.
Ruth heard rumors about what was happening in San Francisco and saw the effects of the disease begin to permeate her community in Arkansas. She began to worry about her cousin, who was gay, and lived in Hawaii. He told her that it was only affecting the “leather guys” in San Francisco and not to worry about him. Still, she did months of research trying to figure out more about the disease.
In 1984, Ruth took several trips to University Hospital in Little Rock to help take care of a friend who underwent five different surgeries as treatment for cancer. During her time at the hospital, she noticed a door that had a big, red bag over it. Nurses would draw straws to decide who would go in and take care of the man inside. Quickly, they argued for best two out of three and then five out of seven.
Based on her research, Ruth had some suspicion that the man had GRID/AIDS but still, one day, she snuck into the room and found a man wasted away to less than 100 pounds. He told Ruth that, before he died, he wanted to see his mother. So Ruth told the nurses outside who first were stunned that she even went in the room before they began to laugh. They told her “honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming. Nobody’s been here, and nobody’s coming.”
Ruth fought and fought and fought until she got the number of the man’s mother from one of the nurses and called. At the mention of her son’s name, Jimmy, the mother hung up the phone. Ruth called back and told her that if she hung up again, she would put her son’s obituary in their hometown newspaper and reveal the cause of death. The mother stayed on the line.
She told Ruth that, as far as she was concerned, her son had died several years ago. She didn’t care what was wrong with him or what happened to him. He was a sinner and she would not visit him or claim his body.
Ruth wasn’t sure what to do but resolved to tell Jimmy the truth as gently as possible. However, when she walked into his room, he reached out his hand and said, “Oh, momma. I knew you’d come.”
Ruth took his hand with her bare palms, the first he’d probably touched since arriving at the hospital, and said, “I’m here, honey. I’m here.” She pulled a chair over and started to talk to him. She took a damp cloth and bathed his face and stayed with him until he died 13 hours later, holding him and telling him that she would take him to her beautiful little cemetery, that her daddy would like him and that her grandparents would watch out over him.
She called his mother to ask for permission to cremate him and told her where she would bury Jimmy in case she ever changed her mind and wanted to visit her son. His mother didn’t care at all.
The closest funeral home that would even touch the body was many miles away in Pine Bluff and Ruth paid out of pocket for them to cremate Jimmy. They mailed him back to her in a cardboard box.
She didn’t have money for an urn so she went to see a friend who worked at a pottery shop and asked if they had any chipped cookie jars she could take. They did but no gravedigger was willing to bury Jimmy and no preacher would pray over his grave. So Ruth took the cookie jar and a pile of posthole diggers to Files Cemetery. Even though she had her pick of lots, she buried Jimmy above her father and said a prayer.
She would bury over 40 more men in the years to come as word got out to rural hospitals about the crazy lady who wasn’t afraid of AIDS. People would give patients her name and number and tell them “go to her, don’t come to me.” She would always call men’s families before she buried the urns to make sure they did not wish to be there when their son was laid to rest. She was usually cussed out or hung up on.
It soon became a family affair. Ruth and her four-year-old daughter would dress up in their Sunday best and go out to the cemetery, Ruth carrying the same posthole diggers, her daughter carrying a plastic spade, and they would bury each man and give a eulogy and a prayer. They called them “do-it-yourself funerals.” This was how she became known as “the cemetery angel.”
She didn’t just bury the men. Before they died, she took them to their appointments, picked up their prescriptions, helped them get financial assistance when they had to quit their jobs and tried to lift their spirits despite their nearing fate.
She would take blood samples to the few doctors who would accept them, although many demanded that she come by after hours at the back door, and get a diagnosis which she would relay to a friend in Washington, D.C. who had access to some of the early research for disease treatment. She would then get the doctor to write the necessary prescription and Ruth would pick it up from the rare pharmacy that actually provided such medication. When pharmacy clerks figured out that she was working with AIDS patients, they make her keep the pen that she signed the checks with and sprayed her with Lysol as she left the store.
She would help patients fill out their own death certificates in some of their last days, knowing that she wouldn’t get the necessary information from family members. She would bring pizza for them to eat as they worked on it.
One mother called Ruth asking how much longer before her son died. She said that his family couldn’t go on with their lives until he died, that he was holding up them up and ruining them. Her son, Billy, would be the youngest man Ruth would care for, dying in his early twenties weighing only 55 pounds. He was a female impersonator and Ruth still has one of his dresses in her closet.
Ruth drove Billy around Little Rock after an appointment, trying to cheer him up a little bit. When they passed the zoo, Billy said that he had never ridden an elephant. Ruth said, “Well, we’ll fix that,” and turned the car around. On top of the elephant, Billy finally found the strength and joy to smile.
She found the money to keep up this work through the support of many gay clubs around the state, many of which would put on weekly drag shows to raise money for Ruth and her services. They were the few members of the community who didn’t see her and her daughter as outcasts. Unfortunately, there were many who did. Twice, people burned crosses in their yard.
Nonetheless, Ruth would continue her work. She cared for over one thousand people. By the 1990s, medical professionals started to notice that her patients were living for two years after diagnosis, compared to the national standard of six weeks. She was one of the three places experts sent people from all of the world to to try to figure out the best treatments. The other two places were the National Institute of Health and the CDC. Ruth thinks that it was the fact she never wore gloves when she touched patients unless they had broken skin. She touched them and loved them like children and gave them the health of happiness in their final days.
Eventually, better drugs and treatment and a deeper understanding of the disease began to materialize, which was absolutely wonderful but it also meant that people started to need Ruth less and less. After the number of patients she took on started to decline, she moved to Florida and became a fishing guide and a funeral director. Later, when her hometown buddy Bill Clinton became president, she acted as his administration’s AIDS education consultant. She moved back to Arkansas, to Rogers, to be nearer to her grandchildren.
Around 2010, she had a stroke and suffered clots in her lungs. She had to work to regain the skills to talk, eat, read, and write.
But no stroke could keep this angel down. In 2013, she defended three foster children in Pea Ridge who had been kicked out of their elementary school because of rumors that one might be HIV positive. After this, she was blackballed and unable to return to her job at the funeral home, nor apply for one at Walmart, where they threw away the chair that she sat on, afraid it might be contaminated.
This kind of attitude coupled with the recent elimination of the Office of National AIDS Policy by the Trump Administration makes Ruth worried that things might go back to the way they had been and that now is the time to ensure that the history of the LGBTQ community will not be erased.
This is part of why Ruth has been working on her dream of creating a memorial at File Cemetery for all of the victims of AIDS. A GoFundMe project was started in her honor a couple years ago and people, including Clinton, donated over $75,000 dollars to make sure her dream came true. The creation of the memorial is currently underway.
At the 2016 New York City Pride Week, she was honored by Broadway Sings for Pride. There is also a book about her life in the works as well as a documentary.
I am so happy that her story is getting the attention that it deserves and is inspiring and affecting change in so many people. We could all use an angel and there are none better than Ruth Coker Burks.
Beyond angels, I still don’t know what exactly my faith is but I know that I want one as strong and as powerful as Ruth’s. “It never made me question my faith at all. I knew that what I was doing was right and I knew that I was doing what God asked me. It wasn’t a voice from the sky. I knew deep in my soul.”