(Photo Credits: Screengrab from Ruth Coker Burks-Activist’s Facebook Page)
If I have one message with this book it’s that we all have to care for one another. Today, not just in 1986. Life is about caring for each other, and I learned more about life from the dying than I ever learned from the living. It’s in an elephant ride, it’s in those wildflowers dancing on their way to the shared grave of two men in love, and it’s in caring for that young man who just needed information without judgement. —Ruth Coker Burks
It’s Women’s History Month 2021, guys! We, the Adam4Adam Team, thought we should honor this woman who did enumerable things for the LGBTQ community during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Her name is Ruth Coker Burks.
You’ve probably already heard of her, if not yet, then her book—titled, All the Young Men: How One Woman Risked It All To Care For The Dying—is as good a place to start as any.
The year was 1986.
Ruth was a 26-year-old divorced single mother when a visit to a hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas changed her life forever. She was visiting a friend that fateful day when she noticed that one of the patients’ doors was painted red. That the nurses were reluctant to enter the aforementioned room didn’t escape her attention, they were even drawing straws to choose the one who will take care of the patient inside.
Outside the room, there were food trays and a “cart of isolation suits and masks.” Out of curiosity, Ruth entered the room and inside was a dying young man named Jimmy crying for her mother. The moment changed her life forever.
According to one of the nurses, Ruth Coker Burks was “crazy to go in” because “he’s got that gay disease.” The nurse said, “They all die.”
Because the nurses refused to contact the patient’s mother, Ruth made the call herself. “My son is already dead,” was what she was told. “My son died when he went gay.” And so, for the next 13 hours, Ruth sat beside Jimmy “until he took his last breath on this earth” because she “could not let him be there alone with no one.”
The story, however, does not end there. When she informed the nurses that Jimmy had passed away, Ruth was told she was “now responsible for the body” but at the time, there were hardly any funeral homes willing to take Jimmy’s body. Thankfully, she found one after several hours of phone calls and once cremated, she buried Jimmy’s ashes herself in a cookie jar at Files Cemetery in Hot Springs where her family members have been buried since the late 19th century.
But Jimmy’s story is just the beginning as he was only one of the many AIDS crisis victims that Ruth Coker Burks helped. An accidental activist, Ruth had then searched for housing and jobs for many gay men, helped take care of the sick and if they died, she found them “funeral homes willing to take their bodies – often in the middle of the night.” At the time, she also stored “rare medications for her most urgent patients,” and taught “sex education to drag queens after hours at secret bars.”
Today, Ruth is known as “the Cemetery Angel” and you can read more about her journey with the gay men she helped through the book she wrote about it with Kevin Carr O’Leary. You can purchase the book titled, All the Young Men: How One Woman Risked It All To Care For The Dying here.