Final resting place: Cemeteries lack oversight

At some cemeteries, graves were desecrated so more plots could be sold. Is enough being done to protect bereaved families?

(CBS News) Roxie Williams' family struggled to pay for a proper burial for her father, but years later when she went to find his grave, the headstone was missing. She has no idea where her father is. An investigation found that cemetery workers dug up hundreds of bodies and dumped them in mass graves so they could resell the plots. This Sunday on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper investigates big profits and big problems in the burial business.

The following script is from "Final Resting Places" which originally aired on May 20, 2012. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Andy Court, producer.

Everyday in this country, grieving families spend thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars on funerals, cremations and burials. They often have to make decisions quickly, at a difficult time, without doing much research or reading the fine print on contracts. And while the bereaved may believe they're dealing with mom-and-pop operations that have been in the community for many years, a lot of funeral homes and cemeteries these days are owned by big corporations, part of a multibillion dollar industry known as the "death-care" business.

The nation's graveyards are a lucrative and little-noticed part of the industry. Most of the time they're every bit as orderly and peaceful as they seem. But when things go wrong, they can go very wrong, for many years, without anyone noticing. And for the families involved, it can be a nightmare.

There are more than 40,000 active cemeteries in this country, from small churchyards to sprawling memorial parks owned by big corporations. We think of them as spiritual places, sacred ground. But in the cemetery where Roxie Williams' family buried her father, she can find no peace. She has no idea where her father's body is.

[Roxie Williams: It's row one, and it's lot 16.]

She was 11 when her father was laid to rest here at Burr Oak, an historic African-American cemetery in Cook County, Illinois. Her mother, a nurse, struggled to pay for the burial.

Roxie Williams: It's traditional in our culture to give that last rite. My brother and I ate beans, I mean, we didn't eat because she was so committed to making sure her husband was put down in a decent fashion.

Anderson Cooper: So, buying that headstone was, financially, a big deal.

Roxie Williams: A burden. I mean, a burden.

That was in 1978. Years later, when she came back to visit her father's grave, she couldn't find his headstone. When she demanded an explanation from cemetery staff, she says they acted like she was confused or crazy and threatened to call police if she didn't leave. Roxie Williams, however, wasn't crazy.

In 2009, acting on an insider's tip, the sheriff's department discovered workers at Burr Oak had been removing headstones, digging up coffins and dumping remains in mass graves so they could resell the plots. It soon became apparent an entire community had been deceived. Hundreds of bodies were thrown out over a period of many years - without anybody figuring out what was going on.

Tom Dart: We first came out here we found femurs, skulls, parts of jaws, just laying out in the open.

Anderson Cooper: Laying out on the ground?

Tom Dart: Oh yeah. I mean, we found one right over here.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart led the investigation at Burr Oak.

Anderson Cooper: And this was all about greed?

Tom Dart: Oh, absolutely. This was all about greed and overarching that is the fact that these areas are so horribly unregulated it allows for that to happen.

Anderson Cooper: When you say it's unregulated, what do you mean?