For ten years the families have waited. For ten years they have hoped. And over the long span of a decade, many have begun to wonder whether a memorial honoring all the victims of the Tri-State Crematory will ever be con-structed.
Now, according to Walker County commissioner Bebe Heiskell, that wait is finally nearing its end.
“We’re taking proposals right now,” Heiskell said Monday, Feb. 13.
The county is planning to add a carved monument to the existing memorial site at the Tennessee Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery in Rossville, where the bodies of the unidentified victims of the Tri-State Crematory were finally laid to rest.
Though Walker County was awarded $45,000 in state funds ten years ago to create such a memorial, according to Heiskell, no consensus on what type of memorial should be created, and more importantly, where it should sit, could ever be reached.
Since the Tri-State Crematory incident happened in the community of Noble, just north of LaFayette, many No-ble residents felt that the memorial should be located elsewhere, in order to avoid reopening community wounds.
Heiskell said that still other Noble residents did want a memorial nearby. Furthermore, the victims came from across the tri-state area, not just Walker County, and Heiskell wanted to find a more central location where all af-fected families might find comfort.
So, for the past ten years, the $45,000 has been awaiting its final purpose, languishing as a line item in the Walker County budget. Now, Heiskell estimates that it will be finally spent within the next two months.
“I think in a couple of months we’ll be either substantially through or through with it,” she said.
As planned now, the memorial will be a large carved structure, most likely in stone, and will be etched with the over 200 names of the victims of the Tri-State Crematory which could be successfully identified.
It will be located at the Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park in the same area as the memorial for the unidentified bodies. Heiskell plans to use the bulk of the funds to purchase the carved memorial, and then use the remainder to add landscaping.
“It’s a pretty expensive monument,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how much it will cost, but we’re going to see what we can get for $45,000 and then we’ll use the rest to do the landscaping and add some bushes and make it look nice.”
“We’re going to spend it all at once,” she said.
Heiskell met Monday with the Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery, which provides memorial and en-graving services, to see what type of monument they could offer the county. Two other companies are being consid-ered as well.
Heiskell plans to finalize plans with one of the companies by the end of the week.
Memories still fresh
For families of the victims, the memorial is a bittersweet step forward.
According to Leatha Shropshire, it is long overdue.
“Every year I’ve called Bebe Heiskell and asked about the memorial,” she said. “She’s given me a little bit of in-formation here and there, but nothing concrete.”
“The county was given $45,000 for a memorial. There’s no memorial. We don’t really know where the $45,000 is. It should have been in an account gaining interest.”
Shropshire was very vocal in advising Heiskell that the memorial, whenever it should be constructed, did not be-long in Noble.
“Every family member I remember talking to in 2002, 2003 said the same thing: they don’t want it done in Noble.”
Relatively speaking, among families of the victims, Leatha Shropshire was one of the lucky ones. Her mother, Helen McKin, had only been sent to Tri-State Crematory two weeks before investigators began combing the scene; as a result, she was one of the first bodies found.
Shropshire still remembers her reaction when she found out that her mother was one of the victims of the cre-matory.
“I can’t tell you what happened then, because I left my body. From then on, the anger took over, and it had only been two weeks since my mother died. I went into overdrive.”
At the scene, Shropshire, with dozens of other family members all waiting on word of their own loved ones, faced a dizzying mess of officials and activity.
“I was kind of overwhelmed because there were news trucks and hundreds of people everywhere.”
Shropshire feels that, in addition to the undue pain and stress levied on her family, her mother’s final wishes were violated by the Marshes crematory. “She’s the one who wanted to be cremated,” she said of her mother. “She told us it’s too hard to go through a funeral, it’ll be easier and cheaper on the family.”
After her mother’s body was recovered and returned to Wallis-Wilbanks Funeral Home in LaFayette, Shropshire was able to say goodbye to her one more time.
“She looked good,” she said. “I kissed her, again.”
Though she has that final memory of goodbye, Shropshire still hangs on to the horror that came before it.
“I saw the pictures of my mother’s body in that room on that nasty floor surrounded by other bodies. Some were naked. Some had no clothes on. Some were wrapped in sheets. Some looked like they were mummified.
“I have those pictures. I have to look at them sometime,” she said, “just to remind myself that it did happen, and that it wasn’t a nightmare.”
For long after the last body was found, Shropshire still felt the need to connect with the place where her mother’s remains were so poorly mistreated.
“I needed to go by there, I needed to see,” she said. “I would wake up at three in the morning and feel the need to go by there so I got in my car and went by there.”
On February 15, the ten-year anniversary of the discovery of the crematory’s crimes, Shropshire’s daughter will hold a small, private memory walk of Center Point Road in Noble.
“It is not just for my mother; she’s doing it for everybody, because the other families are not here. There was a family member, a Mr. Huff, and he talked a lot with my daughter, and his mother was found up there.
“He said ‘My mother, she despised dirty clothes. She kept us in clean clothes.’ And when they found his mother, her dress was dirty. She was in one of the pits. And that’s all he could think about, just that her clothes were dirty,” Shropshire remembered.
“It just went on and on and on,” she said, of the days of investigation ten years ago and the seemingly unending unearthing of bodies.
“How lucky we were. Because she was found, and she was found soon. The building she was in was full of bodies. And he had already dug a pit.”
For families whose loved ones were never recovered or identified, Shropshire has overwhelming sympathy. “How horrible for the other families. They’re going through the same horrible thing.
“How these people live every day with not knowing where their family member is, where the person they loved is, I can’t imagine.”