In 1984, twenty-five-year old Ruth Burks went to University Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas to visit a friend who had cancer. Her friend went through five separate surgeries so Ruth spent a lot of time in hospital hallways and waiting rooms. And that’s when she saw it; a door with “a big, red bag” over it. It was a patient’s room.
“I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on him. It’d be: ‘Best two out of three,’ and then they’d say, ‘Can we draw again?’ ”
And Ruth knew who was in that room, even though it was 1984, the early days of the epidemic. But still, she watched every day as the nurses drew straws to see who would lose and have to go through that door.
Back then it was called GRID — gay-related immune deficiency — instead of AIDS. Ruth knew, because she had a gay cousin and had asked him about the so-called “gay plague” affecting homosexual men. He’d told her, “That’s just the leather guys in San Francisco. It’s not us. Don’t worry.” But she was worried; and so she read everything she could find about the disease, hoping he was right.
And it was because of what she’d read, and what she felt in her heart, that one day Ruth ignored the warning on the red door and went into that room. She found a skeletal-looking young man in the bed who weighed just a hundred pounds; he told her he wanted to see his mother before he died
“I walked out and [the nurses] said, ‘You didn’t go in that room, did you?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah. He wants his mother.’ They laughed. They said, ‘Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’”
Nobody is coming. That wasn’t good enough for Ruth Burks; she demanded the boy’s mother’s phone number and called the woman; she spoke for just a minute before the woman hung up on her.
“I called her back. 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.”
The woman told Ruth Burks her son was a sinner; she said she didn’t know what was wrong with him and she didn’t care. Her son was already dead to her and so she would not come to the hospital; she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died.
That was all Ruth needed to hear; between 1984 and the mid-1990s, before HIV drugs improved and effectively rendered her obsolete, Ruth Burks cared for hundreds of dying people, many of them gay men abandoned by their families. And she buried more than three dozen of them herself, after their families refused to claim their bodies. For many of those young men, Ruth Burks is the only person who knows the location of their graves.
After Ruth Burks hung up the phone on that first mother she had called, she tried to figure out what to do, what to tell that young man who only wanted a visit from his mother before he died.
“I went back in his room, and when I walked in, he said, ‘Oh, momma. I knew you’d come,’ and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, ‘I’m here, honey. I’m here.’”
She sat beside his bed; she talked to him; she held his hand. She bathed his face with a cloth and told him she was there. She stayed in that room for most of the day until he finally died. But what could she do now that the boy was gone; where could she bury him.
Well, since the late 1880s, Burks’s family have been buried in Files Cemetery in Hot Springs. When Ruth was a girl she’d heard the story about the time her mother had gotten into a fight with Ruth’s uncle. And, to make sure the uncle, and his branch of the family, would never be buried alongside her side of the family, Ruth’s mother quietly bought every single grave in the cemetery — all 262 of them. Ruth and her mother visited the cemetery most Sundays after church and Ruth remembered her mother looking out over the land and saying:
“Someday, all of this is going to be yours.”
And little Ruth wondered what she would ever do with a cemetery.
After trying one more time to call that young man’s mother — and being told once again she wanted nothing to do with her son — Ruth Burks buried the man’s ashes in Files Cemetery. But that was the easy part; she had to search for a funeral home to cremate the body—most funeral homes refused to touch AIDS victims even in death. Finally, a funeral home in Pine Bluff, some 70 miles away, cremated that young man’s body for Ruth Burks. She paid for it out of her savings.
The ashes were returned in a cardboard box, and that wasn’t good enough; Ruth called a friend at Dryden Pottery in Hot Springs, who gave her a chipped cookie jar for an urn. She took the urn to Files Cemetery and dug a hole with posthole diggers in the middle of her father’s grave.
“I knew that Daddy would love that about me and I knew that I would be able to find him if I ever needed to find him.”
She put the urn in the hole, covered it over and said a prayer for that young man. It was done; only it wasn’t.
Over the next few years Ruth Burks became one of the go-to people in Arkansas when it came to caring for those dying with AIDS; and Ruth Burks buried more than 40 people — most of them gay men whose families would not claim their ashes — in chipped cookie jars in Files Cemetery.
“My daughter would go with me. She had a little spade, and I had posthole diggers. I’d dig the hole, and she would help me. I’d bury them, and we’d have a do-it-yourself funeral. I couldn’t get a priest or a preacher. No one would even say anything over their graves.”
Ruth Burks always made an effort to reach out to families before she put those urns in the ground, but nearly every time she tried the families would hang up on her; they cussed at her; they called her a demon … because she was caring for their gay sons. And more and more people started calling Ruth Burks, asking for help.
“They just started coming. 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.”
And before long, Ruth was getting referrals from rural hospitals all over the state. She started asking for donations, and often used her own money, to take AIDS patients to their appointments, help them get assistance when they could no longer work, help them get their medicines; she said many pharmacies wouldn’t handle prescriptions for AIDS drugs like AZT, and there was fear among even those who would, and so she stockpiled an “underground pharmacy” in her house.
“I didn’t have any narcotics, but I had AZT, I had antibiotics. People would die and leave me all of their medicines. I kept it because somebody else might not have any.”
Ruth says the financial help given to patients — from burial expenses to medications to rent for those who could no longer work — couldn’t have happened without the support of the gay clubs and drag queens around the state, particularly Little Rock’s Discovery.
“They would twirl up a drag show on Saturday night and here’d come the money. That’s how we’d buy medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent. If it hadn’t been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done.”
Ruth sometimes held as many as three funerals a day in the early years, and most of her memories have blurred together while some remain crystal clear ….
There was the man whose family insisted he be baptized in a creek before he died, to wash away the sin of being gay. Ruth remembers his mother pressing a spoonful of oatmeal to his lips, pleading, “Roger, eat. Please eat, Roger. Please, please, please,” until Burks gently took the spoon and bowl from her. He was 6 foot 6 and weighed 75 pounds. That young man’s aunts went to his parents’ house after the funeral in plastic suits and yellow gloves to double-bag his clothes and scrub everything, even the ceiling fan, with bleach.
She remembers sitting with dying people while they filled out their own death certificates, because Burks wouldn’t be able to call on their families for the required information.
“Can you imagine filling out your death certificate before you die? But I didn’t have that information. I wouldn’t have their mother’s maiden name or this, that, or the other. So I’d get a pizza and we’d have pizza and fill out the death certificate.”
A young man called Billy is the one whose death hit her the hardest. Billy was young, in his early twenties, and was a female impersonator in his early 20s. She says he was beautiful; she still has one of Billy’s dresses in her closet.
As Billy’s health declined, Burks drove him to the mall in Little Rock so he could quit his job; Afterward, he wept and she held him while shoppers streamed around them and pointed at Billy.
Once, a few weeks before Billy died, Ruth Burks had taken Billy to an appointment and afterward they were driving around aimlessly, trying to get his spirits up.
“He was so depressed. It was horrible. We were driving by the zoo, and somebody was riding an elephant. He goes, ‘You know, I’ve never ridden an elephant.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll fix that.’”
Ruth turned the car around. She has a picture now, in her home, of she and Billy on the back of the elephant.
But it wasn’t all so terrible. While she admits to seeing the worst in people, Ruth says she also saw people at their best, caring for their partners and friends with selflessness, dignity, and grace. That’s why she was so happy to see same-sex marriage legalized all over the country.
“I watched these men take care of their companions and watch them die. I’ve seen them go in and hold them up in the shower. They would hold them while I washed them. They would carry them back to the bed. We would dry them off and put lotion on them. They did that until the very end, knowing that they were going to be that person before long. Now, you tell me that’s not love and devotion? I don’t know a lot of straight people who would do that.”
After better drugs, education, understanding, and treatment made her work obsolete, Ruth Burks moved to Florida where she worked as a funeral director and a fishing guide. When Bill Clinton was elected president, she served as a White House consultant on AIDS education.
In 2013, she went to bat for three foster children who were removed from the elementary school after administrators heard that one of them might be HIV-positive. Burks said she couldn’t believe she was still dealing with the same knee-jerk fears in the 21st century.
The work Ruth Burks, and others, did back in those early, dark days has mostly been forgotten, partly because so many of those she knew back then have died. Ruth wants you to know that she wasn’t the only one to do that kind of work, but she’s one of the few who survived and so she is the keeper of memory.
But, before she’s gone, and perhaps the memories, too, Ruth Burks would like to see a memorial erected in Files Cemetery; something to tell people the story; a plaque or a stone; listing the names of the unremembered dead who lie there.
“Someday. 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.”
I have so few heroes in life, outside family members. Rosa Parks; Harvey Milk. And now Ruth Burks, who did what so many could not, and would not, do; who stood up for those who couldn’t stand; who bathed them and cared for them and laughed with them, rode elephants with them.
Ruth Burks is a hero and her story should never be forgotten.