In the mid-1980s, during a time when doctors and world leaders were refusing to help those infected with the HIV-virus, a then 25-year-old young mother living in Arkansas took it upon herself to care for hundreds of dying people, many of them gay men who had been shunned and disowned by the own families during their last days on earth.
After a chance encounter with a gay man rejected by his family and dying of AIDS in a local hospital, Ruth Coker Burks spent years meeting AIDS patients, providing care and medicines for those who need it.
Ruth also buried more than 43 victims of the virus in her family’s cemetery after their families refused to claim their bodies, sometimes even digging their graves herself, earning the title, “the cemetery angel.”
“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,” she explained.
Ruth recalled the moment she found herself face-to-face with the disease while visiting a friend at an Arkansas hospital. She’d noticed a room no one was entering. An AIDS patient was inside: “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.”
“My friend had cancer, and she was having reconstructive surgery,” she told Katie Couric. “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.”
Nobody wanted Jimmy’s remains Ruth explains, so she paid for his cremation, put his ashes in a cookie jar and brought them up to her family’s cemetery.
“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,” said Ruth. “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,” she said. “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.”
Ruth says she was “completely shunned” by her community and was even targeted by the KKK.
“The KKK burned crosses in my yard three different times,” she said. Asked if she ever felt threatened, Ruth said: “No. I had a killer on my hands. I was dealing with AIDS. Why was I gonna be afraid of somebody burning a cross in my yard?”
“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,” she said. “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,” she added. “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.”
She says she found solace out on the waters of Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton. “No one was dying on the lake,” she said. “No one was sick on the lake. You could catch a fish and throw him back in and he’d swim away to live another day. And it wasn’t that way on dry land.”
Ruth took on an informal advisory role on AIDS in the Clinton administration.
In 2010 she had a stroke, which in part she blames on the stress of that era.
“I didn’t have the honor of giving birth to them, but I had the honor of being with them in the moment that they needed somebody the most,” Ruth says of the hundreds of people she cared for during the AIDS crisis. “And I would take them in my arms and I would carry them across the river of death, and there would be on the other side waiting for all of the people who loved them and didn’t judge them. And I had that honor of handing them back to their friends and to God. I was lucky to have them.”