HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KNWA) – For decades, a local woman has routinely devoted her time end energy into a special cemetery, making it a resting haven for souls who otherwise would’ve been long-forgotten.
Ruth Coker Burks comes to the Hot Springs cemetery where many of her relatives are buried to visit their graves.
But Ruth pays a visit to the graves of dozens of other people to whom she gave a resting place… In the 1980’s Ruth buried at least 40 people at that cemetery, because no one else would.
Ruth met Jimmy in 1984.
While visiting a sick friend at UAMS in Little Rock, something caught her eye.
“They had a big red bag on the door, and it was like ‘Danger – Stay out’,” she said.
Curious, Ruth went in.
“I went up to him, and he was so near death,” she said.
That man, Jimmy, told her all he wanted was his mother, and Ruth agreed to call.
“She said ‘My son died years ago’,” Ruth said. “‘Whoever you have at the hospital, I’m not interested, and don’t call me back until he’s dead’.”
Ruth stayed with Jimmy until he died, and then worked to find a funeral home that would actually take the body – since most of them refused to bury someone who died of AIDS.
Once cremated, Ruth knew exactly where she would lay him to rest.
“My mother got mad at her older brother when I was 10 and bought 262 grave spaces in the cemetery so his family couldn’t be buried with the rest of the family,” Ruth explained.
Ruth had no idea how burying this stranger would change her life.
As the AIDS epidemic spread in Hot Springs, so did word of Ruth.
“Then I got another phone call, and then another and then another,” she said.
People from all over heard about Ruth – the woman who helped care for – and bury – people with AIDS when their family and friends abandoned them.
“You had the weight of the AIDS world on one person’s back,” said Ruth’s friend, Tim Looper.
Looper saw it all: the AIDS epidemic in Hot Springs, the fear in the LGBTQ community, and Ruth, who became an educator and advocate for safe sex, a caretaker for the sick, and eventually the one who found the victims their ultimate resting place.
“It’s special knowing we have always had Ruth in our corner no matter what,” Looper said.
What’s more, Ruth did it all as a single mother, with little help and little money for funerals or urns.
“So, I would bury them in cookie jars,” Ruth said.
Ruth and her little girl would dress up on Sundays and dig up holes for those jars, and the often-forgotten people inside them. They would then host makeshift funerals.
Much like the AIDS patients Ruth cared for, she and her daughter were outcasts.
“I had crosses burnt in my yard twice,” she said.
Ruth would eventually be invited to the first White House conference on HIV & AIDS, help advise the Clinton administration, and she now has a documentary and book coming out about her life.
In August, she was honored at Pride Week in New York City.
Always humble, Ruth still only thinks of those she helped.
“I loved them, and I made sure they were loved,” she said. “They made so much more of my life than I made of theirs.”
Ruth and her friends are now working to build a memorial to AIDS victims in Files Cemetery in Hot Springs.