Burks was 25 and was caring for a friend with cancer when she saw an AIDS patient abandoned and alone.
“I walked out and [the nurses] said, ‘You didn’t go in that room, did you?’ “ Burks recalled. “I said, ‘Well, yeah. He wants his mother.’ They laughed. They said, ‘Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming. Nobody’s been here, and nobody’s coming.’ “
Unwilling to take no for an answer, Burks wrangled a number for the young man’s mother out of one of the nurses, then called. She was only able to speak for a moment before the woman on the line hung up on her.
“I called her back,” Burks said. “I said, ‘If you hang up on me again, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.’ Then I had her attention.”
“I went back in his room,” she said, “and when I walked in, he said, ‘Oh, momma. I knew you’d come,’ and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do? What was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, ‘I’m here, honey. I’m here.’ “
Burks said it was probably the first time he’d been touched by a person not wearing two pairs of gloves since he arrived at the hospital. She pulled a chair to his bedside, and talked to him, and held his hand. She bathed his face with a cloth, and told him she was there. “I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath on earth,” she said.
After he died, Burks buried him in the family cemetery.
The ashes were returned to her in a cardboard box. She went to a friend at Dryden Pottery in Hot Springs, who gave her a chipped cookie jar for an urn. Then she went to Files Cemetery and used a pair of posthole diggers to excavate a hole in the middle of her father’s grave.
“I knew that Daddy would love that about me,” she said, “and I knew that I would be able to find him if I ever needed to find him.” She put the urn in the hole and covered it over. She prayed over the grave, and it was done.
Over the next few years, as she became one of the go-to people in the state when it came to caring for those dying with AIDS, Burks would bury over 40 people in chipped cookie jars in Files Cemetery. Most of them were gay men whose families would not even claim their ashes.
This wasn’t without challenges and heartbreak. Many funeral homes outright refused to handle the bodies. Preachers wouldn’t even dare set foot in the area. She used personal savings, with the help of the local queer community, through drag shows and fundraisers, to raise money for anti-retrovirals, and funeral expenses. But it was worth it.
“My [HIV] patients lived two years longer than the national average,” Burks said. “They would send people from all over the world to the National Institutes of Health, they would send them to the CDC, and they would send them to me. They sent them to me so they could see what I was doing that helped them live. I think it was because I loved them. They were like my children, even though I was burying people my age.”
Ruth Coker Burks, cared for over 1000 HIV/AIDS patients, when few would not. Her work until recently was forgotten, but she has a wish:
“Someday,” she said, “I’d love to get a monument that says: 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.”