Photo by Ian Molay
The despoilment of Burr Oak Cemetery poses serious questions about how to honor and observe the religious beliefs of the deceased whose graves were disturbed. As described here, reburials, if not handled correctly, can offend deeply held religious convictions. The simple act of disturbing the bodies for some risks their fate in the after-life.
But Burr Oak Cemetery isn't the only hallowed ground in the Chicago area where such deep issues abound and should worry anyone who cares about the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.
In this other case, the despoilment wasn't the work of vile grave robbers, but of government.
The 160-year, still-active cemetery gives real meaning to the phrase,
"final resting place," because the adherents of this particular
religion believe that the graves must remain undisturbed until the
return of Christ at the world's end. The graves, in fact, are lined up
on an east-west axis because they believe that Christ will return from
The cemetery in question is St. Johannes in Bensenville, in the shadow
of O'Hare International Airport. The government that is fighting to
despoil the cemetery is the city of Chicago at the behest of Mayor
Richard M. Daley. The city has spent millions of dollars in legal
expenses to remove the cemetery to build a new runway for O'Hare
Built in 1849 by German immigrants, it embraces the remains of 1,300
members of St. John's United Church of Christ and their relatives.
Among them are heroes of the Underground Railroad, Civil War veterans
and families that hosted President Abraham Lincoln. Don't think this is
a neglected and overgrown cemetery; many living members of St. John's
plan and hope to be buried their with members of their faith family for
the final resurrection.
You might not buy their belief, or you may even scoff at it, but it is
as constitutionally protected as belief in Christ's redemptive
crucifixion or Moses parting of the sea. Here is a classic exercise in
finding the balance between the First Amendment right to practice
religion unimpaired by the actions of government and the public
interest. The issue remains in the courts now, but that hasn't stopped
Chicago from its aggressive O'Hare expansion plan that already has
tossed hundreds of people out of their homes for a runway that is so
impractical and dangerous that it may never be built.
Mayor Richard M. Daley has been widely criticized and ridiculed for
sending in the bulldozers at midnight to destroy the lakefront airport,
Meigs Field. This time, Daley would bulldoze a First Amendment right.
Not unlike the grave robbers at Burr Oak, greed is the reason--greed for
the contracts and jobs that will rain down on the insiders from O'Hare
Dennis Byrne is a former consultant for O'Hare expansion opponents.