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Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, located at 2900 W 111th St., is the only unincorporated cemetery within city limits.

Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, located at 2900 W. 111th St., is the only unincorporated cemetery within city limits.

Jason Marck

What’s that dead zone in the 19th Ward?

During the 2023 Chicago municipal elections, freelance journalist Taylor Moore often looked over the city’s ward and precinct maps. She noticed something unusual about the 19th Ward. This southwest ward that includes the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood had a rectangular cutout in the middle of the map.

“I had never seen that before. It was so strange to me,” said Moore, who’s lived in Chicago for almost a decade. “If the rectangle wasn't part of the 19th Ward or part of Chicago, what could it possibly be?”

Ward maps are oddly shaped to benefit the politicians who want to keep getting elected to their local council seat — a practice known as gerrymandering. But a blank spot is rare.

With the exception of the 41st Ward, which has the village of Norridge floating in it, the rectangular cutout in the 19th Ward is the largest of its kind within city limits. It turns out that hole in the map is Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, an unincorporated piece of Cook County that has a history of its own.

Cemetery history

Mt. Greenwood Cemetery opened in 1879. Because of the porous quality of the soil on the Southwest Side, the funeral industry was big business in the area, according to historian Carol Flynn with the Ridge Historical Society. People would travel from the city on special funeral trains to attend a burial.

“It really was an all-day trip,” Flynn said. “Bars and taverns, which were really saloons as they called them … were kind of a combination of a rest stop and bar and restaurant. [They] started opening up along 111th Street to serve the people that were coming from the city for funerals.”

Mt. Greenwood Cemetery collectively with other cemeteries in the area were known as the Seven Holy Tombs, or seven cemeteries and seven bars, according to Flynn.

At the time, Mt. Greenwood was its own independent municipality. It had the reputation of a party town, known for its gambling and saloons. Flynn said that’s why, in part, the village was among the last to incorporate into the city of Chicago in 1927.

“There was a big greyhound racing course, just west of the cemetery for a number of years,” she said. “Mt. Greenwood was really in no hurry to have police and others start coming in, paying more attention.”

But eventually, the town needed things like sewer services, better schools and, to the chagrin of the town’s rowdy and makeshift police force, real law enforcement.

“The police that Mt. Greenwood had at the time refused to relinquish their duties as police officers of Mt. Greenwood,” she said. “For a while, Mt. Greenwood even had two police forces: Chicago police force, which was taking over, and Mt. Greenwood police force that were used to doing things their way.”

Flynn said because Mt. Greenwood Cemetery wasn’t even part of the village proper and wasn’t going to contribute property taxes to the city, there was no will to incorporate it. So even after the rest of Mt. Greenwood incorporated into Chicago, the cemetery never did.

Today, Mt. Greenwood is the only unincorporated cemetery within city limits. And running a cemetery in an effective “dead zone” in the city comes with some surprising consequences.

Tales from the unincorporated crypt

Paula Everett’s family has operated Mt. Greenwood Cemetery since the 1940s. She describes it as a city within a city.

“I have roads I have to plow [that] I have to maintain inside,” she said. “I got water issues. I got road issues, electric issues.”

The cemetery is hooked up to the city’s water line, and Everett pays a water bill to the city. For small things, like graffiti or vandalism, Everett said she has a good relationship with the local alderman and with local Chicago police officers. She said being in unincorporated Cook County isn’t an issue, except for when it comes to major police issues. She relies on the Cook County Sheriff’s Department which is about half an hour away from the cemetery.

“I can't call 911 from my phones because they can tell I’m not in the city,” she said. “I have to call 311.”

Several years ago, a teen took their own life at the cemetery in the middle of the night. Everett said no officials contacted her about it. When she found out the next morning, it was difficult to get any information. She doesn’t know how much of a difference it would’ve made if the cemetery was part of the city, but she thinks it would’ve at least made for better lines of communication.

Across the city, cemeteries reap the benefits of being incorporated, like Rosehill Cemetery in the 40th Ward on the North Side.

Alderman Andre Vasquez said working with local police is helpful when community members have complaints concerning the cemetery.

 “I think the most [complaints] we got was during COVID. Because people were using this as a hangout spot during COVID,” he said. “They had to ask them to shut it down and close it to keep [people] from just roaming around here.”

Vasquez wants to construct bike lanes in the cemetery, which would act as a thoroughfare for commuters, as it sits in the middle of his ward. If built, that would be paid for using city dollars — an option Mt. Greenwood Cemetery doesn’t have.

He said the cemetery doesn’t affect his work as an alderman much. But occasionally, around election season, he gets teased. A few blocks of homes are in the same precinct as the cemetery, so the area shows up in vote counts.

“We get the joke every time, ‘Oh, look who voted in that precinct,’ and, ‘The dead bodies do vote in Chicago,’” he said. “It's a little too Chicago on the nose.”

Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics at WBEZ.

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