‘He can’t rest’: Family of Kamarjay Shaw unable to hold burial because plot wasn’t dug

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When family members arrived at Oak Hill Cemetery on Saturday to lay 14-year-old Kamarjay Shaw to rest, they were distraught to learn that his burial plot — next to that of his great uncle, Rick “Tiger” Dowdell — had not yet been dug. 

“My family’s gotta live not only with the fact that my 14-year-old son was taken away from us, we also gotta live it all over again this week,” Kamarjay’s father, LaTouche Shaw, said. 

Kamarjay was shot and killed in Lawrence on March 18, and a criminal case against the alleged shooter is currently ongoing. Dowdell, his great uncle, was 19 years old when he was shot and killed by a Lawrence police officer in 1970. The historical trauma and the parallels between the teens’ deaths have haunted the family.

Now, because of an apparent scheduling error at the cemetery, Kamarjay’s loved ones must wait until the end of this week to bury him, which Shaw said has exacerbated the family’s trauma.

“He doesn’t deserve that, and I honestly believe we don’t deserve it either,” Shaw said. “I still want my son to rest peacefully. I still want my son to be put in the grave in a righteous manner, and he can’t rest — I can’t rest, my family can’t rest.”

Contributed photo Kamarjay and his mother, Barbara Shaw

Oak Hill is one of three cemeteries run by Lawrence Parks and Recreation. 

Park District Supervisor Mitch Young, via email through a city spokesperson on Sunday, said the reason behind the issue was that the funeral home the family contracted did not have the vault delivered to the cemetery.

“This is not something that happens often and clearly we feel terrible for the family,” Young said. “The family did come in last week to purchase the plot and we are prepared to help put their loved one to rest just as soon as the funeral home contacts us and provides a vault.”

But that doesn’t explain why the grave was not dug. A Lawrence Times reporter who visited the cemetery later Saturday observed no plots that appeared to be recent. 

Tyson Williams, president, CEO and co-owner of Topeka-based Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel, said the grave would have needed to already be dug in order for his team to set up their burial equipment, including the vault-lowering device, a tent and chairs upon arrival.

“The vault does not need to be at the cemetery prior to the hole being dug,” Williams said. “Usually the hole is already dug by the time the vault company arrives at the cemetery.”

Williams said when Peaceful Rest made arrangements with Oak Hill Cemetery for the Shaw family, it was confirmed that Kamarjay’s burial would be Saturday afternoon. The family chose to pay for cemetery costs directly rather than adding those charges to their funeral home contract, so they paid Oak Hill prior to Saturday and received a receipt with confirmation of the scheduled burial, Williams said.

“It was confirmed to us during arrangements, with the family present, that Oak Hill was going to be able to accommodate the burial on that day,” Williams said. “Beyond that, when it comes to the cemetery, there isn’t anything further for us to confirm.”

Williams said rather than pointing any fingers of blame in that moment, he and his team just wanted to get to the bottom of what happened and help the Shaw family bury their loved one. As Williams and three of his fellow staff members talked with a gravedigger who was at Oak Hill, he said the gravedigger told him Kamarjay’s burial was not in the cemetery’s schedule at all that day or that week. 

Later, Williams said, he was told the burial was in the cemetery’s schedule for Saturday, April 22 — more than a month after Kamarjay died.

When he called and confirmed with his office manager that the vault had been ordered, Williams said he realized the vault company was not present there at the cemetery. When he spoke to the company, he learned that there may have been some miscommunication as the company said they had not received confirmation from the cemetery. He said the company was willing to get the vault to the cemetery as quickly as possible. 

Without a grave dug, however, there could be no burial Saturday. 

Throughout the rest of the weekend and Monday, the city, the funeral home and the Shaw family worked to reschedule the burial.

“My first priority is the family and making sure that KJ is laid to rest properly,” Williams said.

Shaw said his family was given the option on Monday to hold the burial that same day, but he felt that was too rushed of a turnaround. He said he wished to give Kamarjay the proper, respectful burial that he deserves.

Contributed photo Kamarjay and his father, LaTouche Shaw

Not only did the conflict cause the family more stress and grief, Shaw said, but it has also caused financial and travel issues for loved ones who came from out of town over the weekend. 

A representative from Lawrence Parks and Recreation did call Shaw over the weekend, he said, and offered condolences.

Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for the city, responded via email Tuesday to our request for additional comment. Her statement did not indicate that the city is claiming responsibility for the situation, but again mentioned that the vault, tent and chairs had not been delivered. She did not comment on those items being unnecessary for the plot to be dug, nor on the statement that Kamarjay’s burial was not entered into the cemetery’s schedule book for the correct date.

“We’ve spoken directly to family members including the decedent’s father to personally express our sympathy about their loved one’s passing and Saturday’s events,” McCabe said. “Our staff has now been contacted by the funeral home and there is a ceremony planned. I have no additional information to provide beyond what we stated this weekend.”

McCabe also shared a link to the city’s Cemetery Rules and Regulations, which only makes mention of the funeral home’s responsibility to provide a lowering device and tent, if the family so chooses to go that route, which they did. The policy also states burials have vaults but does not specify that funeral homes must contact the cemetery and provide the vault prior to the plot being dug, or when they must do so.

Through what feels like constant injustice stacked against his family, Shaw said they are still fighting every day for justice for Kamarjay’s death.

“We just want some help for justice for my child,” Shaw said. “The grief process hasn’t even started. We’re still dealing with so much, we can’t even grieve right.”

Conner Mitchell/Lawrence Times Rick “Tiger” Dowdell’s headstone is pictured in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery. The inscription reads “We are an African people. We shall win.”

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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