What Happens When An Airport Takes Over a Cemetary

O'Hare Chicago is a strange place sometimes. Locals are probably aware of the ongoing drama that involves the expansion of the O’Hare Airport. It’s been going on for years, and is one of those situations where you cannot possibly please everyone with the solution to the problem. The current plan, which is already in action, involves moving hundreds of graves so that the airport can expand over what is currently a church cemetery. This is making quite a few people upset.

For whatever reason, there is something about the airport runways in Chicago that cause people in authority to behave in bizarre ways. Not too long ago, there was an airport Meigs Field. There was a war waging between the people of Chicago, and the Mayor of Chicago, (who, at that time was Richard Daley). The people wanted to keep Meigs Field open, because it had historical value, and also was useful to the aviation community.

Mayor Daley, on the other hand, wanted to shut down Meigs Field was because he felt that having a runway that close to the city was dangerous because it would make it easier for terrorists to fly a plane into one of the large buildings in Chicago. One night, while everyone was sleeping, Mayor Daley ordered several bulldozers to carve giant Xs into the runway a Meigs Field, thereby making it impossible for anyone to use ever again. Airports are a big deal in Chicago.

There has been an ongoing controversy surrounding the potential expansion of O’Hare Airport. Right now, a church cemetery, St. Johannes Cemetery, which is 161 years old, is going to be covered over. The City of Chicago is in the process of relocating 1,200 graves from the cemetery, so that O’Hare Airport can be expanded. This project will cost the city around $20 million.

The process is complex. The City of Chicago hired a board-certified genealogist to study the original German records of church baptisms, marriage, and death records that dated back to the 1800’s. Efforts were made to contact the next of kin of the people who were buried in the cemetery, but this isn’t easy. Families have expanded exponentially since then, so it’s hard to say exactly who is the closest living relative.

Some people are being told that they cannot chose where their ancestor will be relocated to, because the City already identified someone else as the next of kin, and allowed that person to make the decisions. To help clarify things, the City has a website called stjohnsfamilyassistance.com that will list where a person has been relocated to.

Some graves are no longer marked, because the gravestones have eroded away (or were vandalized). This German cemetery includes graves where more than one person was interred. It used to be a common cultural practice to bury children who died while they were very young with the child’s grandparents. This isn’t always noted in records.

Image by Tripp on Flickr