The Files Cemetery in Hot Springs (Garland County) is located on a quarter-acre lot off Arkansas Highway 7 South, on Files Road. It has been the resting place of Ruth Coker Burks’s family since the late 1880s. The oldest headstone dates back to the mid-1880s and the most recent was from 2019. Aside from the Burks family, the cemetery is also the burial place for more than three dozen men who died from AIDS in the 1980s.
While most of the headstones in the cemetery are simple rectangles with name, birthdate, and death date, and occasionally a cross or flower engraved, some are marked with symbols and iconography. One such headstone is that of Emma L. Files Burrough, which shows a veil (it often looks like a curtain), a funerary symbol for crossing over into a different plane. The double headstone of Effie M. Burton and husband Lannie O. Burton features a heart with the date of their marriage engraved. The headstone of Ann Clay (wife of W. W. Clay) features a crown and city etchings, a style known as city mansions, referencing the biblical passage of John 14:2, in which it is said that there are “many mansions” in the house of God. The headstone of Isa L. Bota Garnes, who was eight months old at the time of her death in 1895, has the image of a lamb, usually reserved for children. Multiple stones, including headstones that indicate military service, bear the image of a cross in a circle. Variations of a dove image are found on multiple stones also, a reference to the deceased being at peace.
According to a story Burks has widely told, her mother got into a major battle with her brother when Burks was young and methodically bought all 262 of the empty plots in Files Cemetery, where the family had historically been buried, in an effort to prevent her brother and his family from being interred with the rest of the family. Burks was then reportedly given the 262 plots in the cemetery by her mother.
At the onset of the AIDS epidemic, funeral homes often refused to bury those who had died of the disease, and their families often would not claim the bodies. Burks’s mission of helping AIDS victims began when visiting a friend at a hospital in 1984. There she met Jimmy, a dying AIDS patient who was calling out for his mother. The nurses told Burks that his mother would not be coming, but she called her anyway, only to be told by the mother that her son had died when he “turned homosexual.” Burks sat beside Jimmy, holding his hand until he died. She made arrangements for his cremation and then buried him in the Files Cemetery in the middle of the night. Soon, she started receiving phone calls from other hospitals asking her to take their dying AIDS patients. Burks became known as the “Cemetery Angel,” helping the men dying of AIDS to their final resting place, until the 1990s, when improved drugs for the treatment of AIDS and more enlightened attitudes toward AIDS patients slowly made her work unnecessary.
Burks expressed hopes of developing a memorial at Files Cemetery, displaying the names of the men buried there, and turning the site into a place where people could meditate and reflect. A GoFundMe campaign for that purpose was launched by New York resident Travis Dubreuil in 2015, raising $75,000 before being paused in 2017, with no apparent work on the monument having yet been undertaken by mid-2021; Burks acknowledged spending at least some of the money on medical expenses. In addition, the Files family publicly questioned Burks’s alleged ownership of those cemetery plots, insisting that the site was deeded over to the county long before Burks’s mother could have purchased any plots. Others have asked Burks to provide the names of the approximately forty men she buried in the cemetery, but she has yet to produce a complete list.
For additional information:
Bailey, Austin. “Ruth Coker Burks and the Missing Monument.” Arkansas Times, July 8, 2021. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2021/07/08/ruth-coker-burks-and-the-missing-monument (accessed August 27, 2021).
Burks, Ruth Coker, with Kevin Carr O’Leary. All the Young Men. New York: Grove Press, 2020.
“The Cemetery Angel.” CBS News, December 1, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ruth-coker-burks-the-cemetery-angel/ (accessed August 27, 2021).
Files Cemetery. Find-a-Grave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/53880/files-cemetery (accessed August 27, 2021).
Koon, David. “Ruth Coker Burks, the Cemetery Angel.” Arkansas Times, January 8, 2015. Online at https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2015/01/08/ruth-coker-burks-the-cemetery-angel (accessed August 27, 2021).
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Last Updated: 08/27/2021