O?Hare Expansion Into Cemetery Pits Families, Church Against Chicago

March 1, 2010
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imageFor about a week in February, the city of Chicago had legal possession of a small cemetery that blocks a planned new runway at O’Hare International Airport.

That’s when Kimberley Wiemerslage-Emerson and her family worked with the city to exhume seven relatives ? including great-great-great-grandparents ? for reburial elsewhere, away from controversy.

The dispute over St. Johannes Cemetery continues in courtrooms. Some families, meanwhile, are experiencing closure and serenity for the first time in years, even as other families anticipate botched excavations of their ancestors and other worst-nightmare scenarios if Chicago does acquire the cemetery for airport expansion.

“Nobody wants to do this, (but) ? it has given the older relatives in our family the peace and comfort knowing their heritage has been preserved,” said Wiemerslage-Emerson, who was raised in Elmwood Park and now lives in Rhode Island.

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The family is extremely grateful for everything that was done on its behalf and paid for by the city’s O’Hare Modernization Program. Chicago, in turn, is grateful for the opportunity to clear out as many graves as possible from St. Johannes, while aggressively continuing the court fight to take the title of the 5-acre burial ground away from its owner for the last 161 years, St. John’s United Church of Christ.

Church officials, meanwhile, charge that city aviation officials are using scare tactics to nab consecrated land needed for runway 10 Center/28 Center at O’Hare.

“Some families moved remains out of fear and pressure by Chicago,” said the Rev. Michael Kirchhoff, a member of St. John’s cemetery committee. “And the city won’t give us the names of people disinterred or what they did with them. Are they hiding something, or did they do an incomplete job? That is our greatest fear.”

City officials said they made every effort to do geneological searches as well as work with family members and the church to get the most accurate accounting of who was buried where in the cemetery. Although the church was not cooperative, the exhumations the city carried out satisfied the Emerson family, city officials said.

The first bodies were buried at St. Johannes, in what today is Addison Township, before the Civil War.

Some of the dead were placed in wooden coffins that have turned to dust; others were not buried in coffins at all. When sudden illness took away children, graves were often reopened on the day they died to reunite grandparents and grandchildren who, too young to have sinned in life, were considered destined to become angels, according to religious beliefs.

The burials were quick, resulting in remains being placed partly in other grave shafts or settling there over time. Record-keeping wasn’t precise back then either. Documentation of some burials is based only on family folklore and tradition.

“There is a certain messiness to moving our loved ones that cannot be overcome,” Kirchhoff said. “The vast majority of the hundreds of family members I talked to over the years say the spirit, soul and body of those placed in God’s care should not be disturbed.”

The exhumations of Wiemerslage-Emerson’s seven relatives in February ? the first disinterment conducted since the summer ? took four days. She attended part of the process and observed the relocation, which included “sacred soil and children without markers,” she said.

City officials contend the relocation was carried out flawlessly, with dignity and respect. A total of 24 remains out of about 1,200 graves at St. Johannes have been relocated since July, according to the O’Hare Modernization Program’s Family Assistance Office.

“This is not the first nor will it be the last relocation of a cemetery across the world,” said Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino. “We are committed to making the experience the best we can for the families.”

But church members and relatives of the deceased going back five generations are still hopeful they will prevail against Chicago’s plans to close the cemetery, move the remains and build the runway. They cling to that belief, even though the courts haven’t given them much encouragement during a legal battle that has stretched over a decade. For now the cemetery is back in church hands.

The case is before a state Appellate Court, but Chicago attorneys have asked the Illinois Supreme Court to hear the appeal. The matter is pending.

Families say the city has established restrictive rules limiting the rights of relatives to oversee the process or choose a new cemetery; and that families are banned from selecting their own funeral director. There are cost guidelines that must be followed as well, according to the O’Hare Modernization Program Family Assistance Office.

Although the city and its cemetery relocation contractor, the Louis Berger Group, say the work will continue to be done with the discipline of an archaeological dig, families are alarmed over the possibility that their relatives may be separated from each other, that unspeakable mistakes could occur, even that workers on the site might rob the graves.

“Some of the elders were buried with pocket watches from before the Civil War. Someone could easily run off with it because the city is banning the families from observing the relocation,” said Bob Sell, who estimates he has 75 relatives buried at St. Johannes. “It makes us extremely fearful of what may happen, and that people’s loved ones could be lost.”

The city will “make accommodations for family members,” but in general “they should not be there because of safety,” Andolino said. “You are exposed to the elements. It is an emotional experience. But we have honored the families’ wishes and had people there for a portion of the process.”

Despite Chicago pledging to use archaeologists and bone specialists to identify remains when exhumations resume if the city is successful in court, survivors fear it will be an inexact process, which would explain why they are banned from observing.

“Just from a pure religious point of view it is unacceptable,” Sell said.

Sell and other members of St. John’s don’t have a problem with the cemetery being located in the shadows of one of the busiest airports in the world, despite the juxtaposition of tombstones and jetliners. They would even support O’Hare expansion, they say, if only Chicago aviation officials had exercised an option to build the new runway near ? but not through ? what they consider sacred ground.

Betty and Robert Dohe, who last year worked with the church and the city to move four relatives from St. Johannes, said they see both sides of the argument.

She believes her relatives are in a good place, away from runways, hangars and cargo facilities that were just beyond the fence.

“For us,” Dohe said, “there was no serenity at St. Johannes to pray or sing a song.”

Source: Chicago Tribune

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