In 1986, Ruth Coker Burks met a man dying of AIDS in Arkansas — a heartbreaking experience that sparked a life of advocacy she reflects on in her new memoir, All the Young Men.
The man's family wouldn’t take him in and he wasn’t welcome at the hospital. When he died, funeral homes wouldn’t take his body. Burks stepped into action.
“I waited for a full moon to bury his ashes,” Burks, now 61, tells PEOPLE of that night. “I couldn’t let anyone see what I was doing.”
She headed for Files Cemetery in Hot Springs. It was a scraggly piece of land on a hill shaded by pine trees. Burks’ relatives had been buried there since the 1800s, and she had inherited 262 plots from her mother.
The 26-year-old single mom had met Jimmy only briefly a few days before. Now she clutched his cremated remains in a chipped cookie jar, the only thing she could afford.
Crunching across the dry pine needles, she found herself standing over her father’s grave. She figured her dad would take care of Jimmy, and should word get out, she could find his interred ashes again.
“I was terrified that people might desecrate the cemetery and dig up the remains,” Burks says. “Plus, there wasn’t a judge alive who wouldn’t have taken my daughter away if they had known that I had taken care of an AIDS patient and then buried him. But no one wanted him."
She started digging.
Burks — whose book is out today, World AIDS Day, and available on audio — had no idea that this would not be her last clandestine burial. Or that word would quietly spread, she would go on to inter the remains of more than 40 other men who died from AIDS in the 1980s, she would become an outspoken AIDS advocate, and what she started would become sacred LGBTQ ground — a place to which people from all over the country would make pilgrimages.
Burks met Jimmy while visiting a sick friend at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock. She wondered who was across the hall, in the room secured by a red tarp emblazoned with a biohazard symbol. Then she heard the nurses drawing straws to determine who had to treat the patient with the “gay disease.”
Venturing closer, she heard a man’s voice calling out for his mother. There, in his last hours, Jimmy, so dehydrated he could barely cry, had become delirious and thought Burks was his mother. She pretended to be. He reached out for her hand, and she took it, ungloved.
“At that moment, I had a conversation with God,” she says. “I asked, ‘Are you really sure I’m supposed to be in here?’ The answer was clear, and I never looked back. I fell down the rabbit hole.”
With Burks by his side, Jimmy died.
Burks called Jimmy’s mother, who said that she didn’t want his body. Then she lambasted the nurses over his care. It was the beginning of a loop of painful and combative conversations, which would be repeated over the next 20 years as she became an inadvertent AIDS advocate. Burks appeared on TV and in newspapers and passed out condoms in gay bars as often as she prayed (and solicited donations) in churches.
“It’s what I would hear every Sunday,” she says. “You’re supposed to do for those who have the least. This is who the church taught me to be.”
A few days after she buried Jimmy, she got a phone call from a hospital in Hot Springs. A patient was near death, and they’d soon need his body removed. They had heard Burks could assist.
“This hospital is not equipped to handle people with AIDS,” a nurse told her.
His name was Ronald, and she watched him die too. This time she waited to see how long his soul stayed in the room, she says.
“The vein in his neck, I watched how many times it beat before he stopped breathing," she says. "I remember thinking, ‘That’s one thing I know about him.’ ”
Burks interred Ronald at the cemetery, also in a cookie jar. He and Jimmy would soon be joined by Tim, Jim, Carlos and more. Sometimes she spent days with the men, sometimes only hours. Sometimes she would sit with three or four men per week as they died; other times she would simply receive remains in the mail.
Slowly, her mission of companionship became something more: She helped men with HIV secure Social Security benefits, medicine and food. She began helping them get tested, learning how to draw blood and transporting the vials in fishing-bait coolers to the health center. (To maintain anonymity, she’d label the vials Nancy or Ronald Reagan, a nod to the president’s refusal to acknowledge the disease.)
Afternoons and weekends, often with her daughter Allison in tow, she’d ferry the men (“my guys,” she calls them) to appointments, the grocery store, to look for apartments.
“Oh, and we laughed,” Burks says. “And I learned some funny things, like when someone wears ‘summer diamonds’ — some are diamonds, and some aren’t.”
Mostly, she provided acceptance. Soon she began receiving the type of vitriol that the LGBTQ community knew all too well. (She once woke up to a flaming cross in her front yard.)
“I knew what it was like to not be accepted,” says Burks. “These were people that had done nothing wrong in their lives and had gotten this horrible plague. And they became our family.”
Often the men would babysit Allison when Burks couldn’t afford childcare.
“They took us in too,” she says.
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