How would you feel if your city government wanted to dig up and relocate the graves of your loved ones to expand an airport? The congregation of St. John’s Church of Christ in Chicago is taking a dim view of the idea.
The church has gone to court to keep O’Hare International Airport (ORD) from removing the 440-acre church cemetery for the expansion project. That project also will require the removal of several hundred homes and businesses.
On Sept. 30, the FAA approved the $15 million expansion project, which includes runway construction and realignment designed to make the airport more efficient.
“O’Hare is now cleared for takeoff,” FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told reporters in a conference call soon after the city of Chicago received formal notification of the decision.
According to Blakey, the expansion will bring “greater safety and greater capacity” to O’Hare.
But only a few symbolic shovels of dirt were turned before the project was abruptly halted because opponents had gone to court, where they were granted a restraining order to stop the project — at least until their objections are heard.
Leading the opposition is Jared Leland, legal counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. According to Leland, the church is not opposed to airport expansion. However, it doesn’t want it to come at the expense the cemetery. Grave relocation violates their religious beliefs, he said.
“If they want to change the airport, we suggest they realign the runways or make them shorter if they can,” he said. He added that the group is working with aviation planners to come up with alternatives that do not involve mass grave removal.
Among those interred at the cemetery, which was established in 1848, are veterans of the Civil War, members of the Underground Railroad, and families that hosted President Lincoln during his frequent visits to his home state.
The airport was established some 94 years later as Orchard Field. It played a vital part in the war effort then, like so many former military fields, became a civilian airport. It was renamed to honor Lieutenant Edward O’Hare, a Navy flyer awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor who died during the war. The airport also was expanded after World War II. There allegedly was the understanding that the airport would not encroach on the nearby burial ground.
In 2001, however, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unveiled the O’Hare Expansion Plan, which includes, among other things, the realignment and construction of new runways where the cemetery is now.
The graves are not in cement vaults, Leland noted, so the idea of simply digging up a vault and the surrounding soil for transplanting will not work.
“They are in wooden caskets, which eventually become one with the soil,” he explained. “There are about 1,300 people there. More importantly, the congregation believes that to remove the remains of their fellow believers from the place they have been laid to await the day of resurrection would be a desecration of holy ground.”
Mass grave relocation for airport expansion is not new, said Roderick Drew, public information officer for the O’Hare expansion project. He cited the expansion at Lambert Field in St. Louis in 2002, which involved the relocation of Bridgeton Memorial Park. The cemetery, which was just west of the airport where the third parallel runway is today, was mapped out using a grid system, then approximately 10,000 graves were relocated to St. Ferdinand Cemetery in Florrisant, Mo.
“We hired the firm that did the cemetery relocation in St. Louis,” said Drew. “We have also been working with the FAA and the state historical preservation society so, should this be allowed, we will document the site and move forward with utmost care and respect.”
Drew noted that the original project called for the removal of two cemeteries. The smaller of the two burial parks was going to be removed to allow for the construction of a cargo facility, but plans changed.
“We figured a way to redesign the cargo facility to work around the smaller cemetery,” he explained. “It allows limited access to the cemetery even though its boundaries are within the property of the airport.”
The second, larger cemetery cannot be built around, he said, “because it lies directly in the location of one of the new runways.”
Chicago city officials are raring to go on the project, to the point of moving heavy equipment into place.
“The minute the final decision comes the bulldozers are going to start — no matter what time of day or night it is,” Leland predicted. “Mayor Daley is known for doing things when the courts are closed and the lawyers are asleep.”
City officials are still working to acquire property in neighborhoods adjacent to the airport so that the full project can be done, Drew said. “We have talked to approximately 150 of some 600 property owners in Bensenville and Elk Grove Village. When the record of decision is handed down, we will close on some properties, others we will make offers on.”