Chicago cemetery awaits new oversight law

November 1, 2011

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Currently, Illinois cemeteries don’t have to be licensed. Lack of oversight was blamed in part for problems at a cemetery in Chicago’s south suburbs. Burr Oak became embroiled in scandal two years ago after it was alleged that employees were reselling burial plots. So state lawmakers passed a bill that requires cemetery licensing and regulation. But the new cemetery oversight act hasn’t gone into effect yet. Enforcement can’t come soon enough for some people who live near the state’s largest cemetery on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

A procession of cars snakes out of Mt. Hope Cemetery near Fairfield and 115th– a two-lane street.

Orange stickers are pasted in car windows to let them roll through stoplights.

A Cook County sheriff’s car patrols the grounds.

This is a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of the 19th Ward. 

The funeral traffic is a problem for neighborhood residents. And they say, so is the behavior of some funeral-goers.

FOX: The people that come to these funerals don’t have a lot of respect for the people who live here.

Darlene Fox lives a block away from Mt. Hope.

FOX: I was in the right lane trying to come home. And one of the people that was there actually pulled out of the recession, parked the car in front of my car and wouldn’t let me proceed because they thought I was being rude to the people in the funeral procession. They yell out violent, violent mean profanity. The “f-word” is prevalent.

These are the kind of ongoing complaints Ald. Matt O’Shea hears from Beverly-area residents. He shuffles through a stack of papers.

O’Shea says sometimes traffic is backed up a mile to enter the cemetery. He also says gunshots have been fired near Mt. Hope.

O’SHEA: It is the cemetery of choice for the Chicago metro gangbanger. We have had dozens and dozens of incidents of rival gangs. Verbal altercations between gangs in the cemetery, on the perimeter of the cemetery, verbal altercations.

The race component here is hard to overlook. The neighbors complaining tend to be white. Those in the aforementioned rowdy funeral processions tend to be black.

O’SHEA: I don’t think it’s a black white issue. I think it’s simply an issue of public safety.

On one occasion, O’Shea says, two nearby schools delayed dismissal…worried about the safety of students because two rival gangs were having burials at the same time. But he says it’s a small percentage of burials that cause problems. Cook County sheriff’s cars do routinely patrol the cemetery grounds because of complaints. The cemetery is technically in unincorporated Cook County.

Last year Mt. Hope had more than 3,000 burials – more than any other cemetery in the state.

O’Shea says Mt. Hope’s owners need to take more responsibility.

MOORE: What do you want and what do residents want to be resolved with the cemetery?

O’SHEA: It’s a matter of public safety. Quite frankly they need to build a second entrance to handle the sheer volume of traffic that goes in and out of their cemetery. And they need to police their cemetery. If you’re going to accept these processions on your property, then you need to provide adequate safety. 

A new state law that licenses and regulates cemeteries could potentially require the owners to put in a second entrance. The rules for the law have yet to be published and that’s the holdup.

O’Shea and local residents think an additional entrance could alleviate traffic and perhaps mitigate conflict among funeral goers. Regulation could also impose criminal penalties.

Mt. Hope owners declined to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement, a lawyer for the owners said that management has met with the county, Chicago police and the alderman. On high-traffic days the owners say a uniformed off-duty police officer directs traffic.

The statement also said, "Mt. Hope has worked to find alternative resolutions to address neighbors’ concerns and significant progress has been made in improving traffic flow."

In the meantime, the state law regulating cemeteries is in limbo. And until enforcement is officially on the books, Alderman O’Shea will continue to shuffle petitions and field phone calls.