Ruth Coker Burks cared for over 1,000 people during the height of the AIDS epidemic, most of whom had been rejected by their families.
In 1984, Ruth Coker Burks' discovery of a hospital room door with a "big, red bag" over it and her encounter with the dying young man inside changed her life — and led her to becoming the final caregiver for hundreds of people dying of AIDS, most of them young gay men who had been abandoned by their families. When Burks, then 26 years old, learned how many young men were being left to die alone and often were not even being claimed for burial, she recalls thinking, "Who knew there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?” Over the next ten years, Burks estimates that she helped care for over 1,000 people dying of AIDS and even dug the graves for 40 of them herself in her family's cemetery. In recognition of today's World AIDS Day, we're sharing her inspiring story — and the powerful and timeless lesson it teaches about the power of compassion to overcome fear and prejudice.
Burks was visiting a friend at University Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas when she noticed a door with a big red bag over it. “I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on him,” she recalled in an interview with the Arkansas Times. Burks, whose cousin was gay, knew enough about AIDS to guess who the patient inside the door was — and fears about the disease didn’t stop her from sneaking into the room. Inside, she discovered a skeletal young man desperate to see his mother before he died. When she told the nurses, “They laughed. They said, ‘Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’” Burks convinced the nurses to give her his mother’s number and she tried reaching out one last time time, but it was obvious his mother had no intention of coming to see her “sinful” son who she considered already dead to her. As Burks told Katie Couric in an interview, she then returned to the room and took his hand. "I ended up staying with him for thirteen hours until he took his last breath on this earth."
With his family refusing to claim his body, Burks decided to bury him herself in a local cemetery where her family owned hundreds of plots. “No one wanted him,” she says, “and I told him in those long 13 hours that I would take him to my beautiful little cemetery, where my daddy and grandparents were buried, and they would watch out over him.” The closest funeral home that agreed to cremate his body was 70 miles away and she paid for it out of her savings. A friend at a local pottery gave her a chipped cookie jar to use as an urn and she used a pair of posthole diggers to dig the hole.
Over the next few years, when she became one of the go-to people in the conservative Southern state caring for people with AIDS, Burks buried more than 40 people in similar jars, most of them gay men who had been rejected by their families. “My daughter would go with me,” she recalls. “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.” As a result, she reflected in a CBS News interview, "I had that honor of handing them back to their friends and to God."
During this time, as the AIDS epidemic was devastating the gay community across the country, she began to get referrals from rural hospitals from across the state. "They just started coming,” she explains. “Word got out that there was this kind of wacko woman in Hot Springs who wasn’t afraid... I was their hospice. Their gay friends were their hospice. Their companions were their hospice.”
Time and time again, Burks reached out to their parents but, out of the 1,000 people she cared for, she says that only a handful didn't reject their dying children. And, although she often saw the worst in people, she says she was also privileged to see people at their best as they cared for their friends and partners with dignity and grace: “I watched these men take care of their companions and watch them die... Now, you tell me that’s not love and devotion.” Burks also saw how the gay community supported one another and her efforts. “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.”
By the mid-1990s, better treatment, education, and social acceptance made her efforts largely obsolete and Burks stopped caring for patients personally. Today, the work that she and others did on behalf of the many people who died during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s has been largely forgotten. Burks' efforts, however, were brought to light in recent years when a crowdfunding campaign raised $75,000 to finally fulfill her dream of creating a memorial to those she buried at the the Historic Files Cemetery. A memorial that Burks had long hoped would read, in part: "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."
To learn more about Ruth, who now speaks to audiences around the country about her experience, visit her website, Ruth Coker Burks,
Books About Compassionate Mighty Girls and The AIDS Epidemic
This popular book uses the metaphor of invisible buckets to describe self-esteem. Author Carol McCloud teaches kids that people feel good when the bucket is full and sad or angry when it’s empty. By showing how you can “fill” a bucket (through kindness, compassion, and appreciation of others) or “dip” from a bucket (by being mean or exclusionary), kids can easily understand how their actions affect others’ emotions. Younger kids can learn about bucket filling in Fill A Bucket: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Young Children for ages 2 to 6, while older kids can expand on the lessons with Growing Up With A Bucket Full of Happiness: Three Rules for a Happier Life for ages 8 and up.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and award-winning artist Rafael López celebrate kids of different abilities and the power of inclusion in this affirming picture book! Sotomayor encourages kids to ask if they are curious about another child's differences, introducing physical conditions like her own experience with diabetes and Lopez's use of an inhaler for asthma, then broadening the conversation to include neuroatypical conditions like Tourette's and autism; learning disabilities like dyslexia; and even a nut allergy. Throughout, the children in her story work together to create a garden as a powerful visual reminder that we all have the power to make the world more beautiful.
Chloe and her friends won’t play with Maya, who wears hand-me-down clothes and plays with old toys; eventually, Maya stops asking, and soon after, Maya moves away. But when Chloe’s teacher invites her students to think about how small kindnesses might affect the world in unexpected ways, Chloe has a revelation — she can’t think of a single time that she was kind to Maya, and now that Maya is gone, the opportunity to offer her even a small kindness is gone forever. However, the book also ends with a positive implication: if everyone resolves to extend kindness to everyone they meet, the ripples will extend around the world.
Auma's love of running might be the ticket to a better future: the young Kenyan track star hopes her athletic skill can help earn her a scholarship to attend high school and maybe even university. But there is a strange new sickness called AIDS in her country... and when her father gets sick, Auma has a difficult choice to make. If she leaves home, her struggling family will lose her help — but if she stays, she can never become a doctor, something that might allow her to help people around the world. Author Eucabeth Odhiambo draws on her experiences at the beginning of Kenya's AIDS crisis to create this story about the power of education. For another book that tackles the African AIDS pandemic, check out The Heaven Shop for ages 10 to 14.
13-year-old Binti Phirim was the child star of a popular radio program in Malawi — until her grandmother acknowledged what everyone else was refusing to say: her father and mother died of AIDS. As an AIDS orphan, she is treated as the lowest of the low; her relatives take all of the family's possessions, and even the uncle who grudgingly adopts her directs his children to stay away from her. Binti struggles with anger and grief, and wonders if everything that made her special has been erased, contaminated by her proximity to the virus. Fortunately, her kindhearted grandmother, who runs a shelter for AIDS orphans, offers a place to stay and recover her sense of self. This powerful novel that explores myths about AIDS transmission and cultural responses to disease was inspired by the stories of real AIDS orphans.
In 16-year-old Chanda's world, many things are shrouded with secrets. Like the death of her baby stepsister, who her mother says "went on a trip." Her mother is weakening, both from her own illness, which she refuses to explain to her daughter, and from her descent into drinking. A nosy neighbor theorizes that a curse is involved, but Chanda's heard whispers of the disease called AIDS — and has seen the increasing number of graves being dug for people in her village who have died. And when her best friend, desperate for money, considers prostitution, AIDS touches Chanda's life again. If she's going to build a future for herself and her family, Chanda needs to tear away the secrets and lies and face the truth. This powerful novel has also been adapted into a motion picture, Life, Above All.
Prejudice and fear about AIDS is not a far-off reality; it happens every day in our own communities. Paige Rawl was born HIV positive, but her illness never defined her; with modern treatments, she had every reason to believe she could live a full life. But when she tells a friend about her HIV status in middle school, she finds herself in the middle of a vast bullying campaign. As her schoolmates mocked her mercilessly, the school administration refused to help, telling her that she should just lie and pretend she wasn't HIV positive. After spiraling into depression, though, she came out the other side determined to make a difference — and teach people how important kindness can be. This heartbreaking but inspiring memoir is a reminder of how much we all need to do to tackle HIV stigma.
After her baby sister dies, 12-year-old Chanda learns that people in her neighborhood are saying that her mother has HIV and killed the baby with her milk. The village's fear and shame break the family apart, and Chanda's mother flees, leaving Chanda to keep up appearances and care for her siblings. But as her friend Esther is forced into prostitution — putting her at risk of contracting the virus — and Chanda begins to understand just how much these secrets are hurting people, she decides to search for her mother — and the truth of what is happening to her community. This inspiring film, based on the award-winning novel Chanda's Secrets, is a tribute to the power of truth to change the world for the better.
Ruth Coker Burks was 26 years old when she saw a hospital room that none of the nurses wanted to enter: the room of an AIDS patient. It was 1986, and stigma against both homosexuality and the disease itself was raging. As she sat with the man as he died, calling out for her mother, she found a new calling. Over years, she would nurse thousands of men, sometimes burying them herself when she couldn't find a funeral home willing to take their bodies. The gay community rallied around her, helping fundraise and spreading the word: there is a woman who will help when everyone else abandons you. This deeply moving memoir is a tribute to Burks' compassion and to the lives she fought for when no one else would.
When AIDS emerged in the 1980s, the public response was negligible; it seemed easier to say this mysterious disease was confined to gay men than the face the fact that a dangerous new virus — one which took years to reveal its affects — might be creeping through the population unseen. Ignored by the governments and public health agencies that should have helped them, early AIDS activists became their own advocates, researchers, and doctors. They funded experiments, founded research journals, and even smuggled badly needed medications to people in need. How to Survive A Plague is a remarkable insider's account of the grassroots movement that forced the world to pay attention to the needs of HIV-positive people, driving the development of today's modern treatments.