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Dead Reckoning

Part of O’Hare’s expansion has stalled, blocked by the religious beliefs and constitutional claims of the 160-year-old St. Johannes Cemetery. With the court battle nearing its end, time may have run out for the old burial ground

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The five-acre St. Johannes cemetery abuts a cargo depot and a taxiway for passenger jets at O'Hare International Airport.
The five-acre cemetery abuts a cargo depot and a taxiway for passenger jets. A terminal looms in the distance.

From the beginning, city officials have regularly expressed empathy for the descendants of those buried at the cemetery. “We understand their plight and want to be sensitive to their needs,” says Commissioner Andolino. “But the airport is of national significance—and cemeteries have been moved before.”

There’s little argument on that front. In 1955, more than 2,000 graves were moved from Waldheim, Forest Home, and Concordia cemeteries in Forest Park during construction of the Eisenhower Expressway. Forty years later, Lombard officials approved the relocation of 170 graves within Allerton Ridge Cemetery—an overgrown burial ground that had been acquired by a private developer—to make way for a shopping mall. Most famously, in an effort to ward off cholera and other health hazards in the years following the Civil War, Chicago cleared out some 35,000 bodies from its old North Side city cemetery, an effort abetted by the great fire of 1871. Today those grounds compose the southern end of Lincoln Park, where one mausoleum—the tomb belonging to Ira Couch and his family—still remains immediately north of the Chicago History Museum.

Despite the city’s best efforts, the Couches weren’t the only ones left behind, and bodies continued to surface in the ensuing decades. In 1998, during construction of a parking structure at the history museum, workers uncovered the skeletal remains of another 80 bodies. Having lain forgotten for more than a century, the bodies were essentially unidentifiable, and today they reside at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in Springfield. “We’re just holding them in case any relative can come forward and claim them,” says Dawn Cobb, the coordinator of the state’s Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act.

Three years ago, Cobb visited St. Johannes, and should O’Hare get the OK to disinter the bodies there—a task that would be handled by the cultural-resources branch of the well-respected Louis Berger Group—she and her office would help oversee the move. “Honestly, I’ve never encountered anything this large,” says Cobb, who has helped relocate significantly smaller rural cemeteries. The relocation of the bodies at St. Johannes “could certainly take months,” she says, and is dependent on things such as the weather and the size of the removal crew. Though a backhoe might be used to remove the first layer of topsoil—just enough to reveal the grave shaft, says Cobb—much of the work would have to be executed with trowels, hand picks, and brushes, all under the watchful eyes of an archaeologist and a skeletal analyst.

Given the age of some of the graves, Cobb is unsure what the diggers will discover. Most of the wooden coffins will likely have disintegrated, leaving behind only a few nails and pieces of metal hardware. Depending on the acidity of the soil, there may be some perfectly preserved skeletons, or merely bone fragments or bone meal—“the shadow of where the bones used to be,” explains Cobb. “Workers will document everything in the grave. We want to make sure everything is removed and reburied as a unit.” Wherever possible, the old grave marker will be used on the new grave. “It’s such a sensitive issue,” says Cobb. “Workers will be cautious and very respectful.”

For the relatives of those buried at St. Johannes, those good intentions aren’t enough. “In 1849, when the first burial took place, there was this sense of committing somebody to God’s care for eternity,” says Rev. Kirchhoff, who has a great-great-grandfather and descending generations of his family buried at the cemetery. And that’s the sticking point: As even the courts acknowledge, “a major tenet of [the St. John’s congregation’s] religious beliefs is that the remains of those buried at the St. Johannes Cemetery must not be disturbed until Jesus Christ raises these remains on the day of Resurrection.”

So who has the more compelling need: the city of Chicago, the O’Hare Modernization Program, and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA)—or St. John’s church-goers worried about the well-being of their relatives’ eternal souls? For an answer to that question, the contending parties ultimately turned not to a heavenly tribunal, but to the U.S. judicial system.

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Chicago Tribune photo by George Thompson

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