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Fight Or Flight – The Cemetery That Wouldn’t Leave O’Hare Airport

By: - January 30, 2016
Category : Places

(I began writing this at O’Hare on December 28th 2015, finishing a few days later, but just getting around to posting this now so sorry for the semi-dated content.

Chicago Skyline Winter

This was my view into Chicago.


After heading back to Illinois to spend the holidays with my family, my trip took an odd turn as I was stuck at O’Hare for a long period due to the weather around the country. I sat at the airport as I took out my laptop and began to write. In between the “Oohhh’s” and “ahhhs” everytime the flight attendant would change the departure screen, I took in the great sites of people watching — The kid that got too much for Christmas. The over-entitled business traveler who demanded a flight out even though NONE were leaving. The parents burnt out by traveling. After three gate changes, and six flight changes, before finally being canceled — I found a seat right by the Christmas trees of the world, and had an amazing view of the slushy snow belting across the floor-to-ceiling windows.

As the plows on the runway began to pile the snow in the distance, I felt it was a perfect time to get to know my surroundings. After spending some time people watching (as mentioned above), I began to search something I learned on the way to the airport a few years back, but never took the time to reexamine it. Up until about three years ago there was a cemetery in the middle of O’Hare.

Among the many miles of O’Hare’s runways laid a cemetery that was embroiled in a major lawsuit over what is legally “final place of rest.” The St. Johnannes cemetery (founded in 1849) was located along the Bensenville side of O’Hare where over 1,300 members rested in a five-acre lot. O’Hare needed to expand their ever growing operation. They wanted to pay the church to move the deceased parishioners. But as the church began contacting the family members of the 160 year old cemetery — they realized a lot of them were unidentified. Either by weathering of the headstones, or there were no remaining family members to contact. The church was now in a bind. Could you move somebody’s final place of rest when ordered? It was both a religious question and a moral one. The First and Fourteenth amendments (which ensure, respectively, the right to freely exercise religion and equal protection under the law) were dismissed in a court of law.The city didn’t seem to care, either. They wanted to expand the airport. They needed to expand the airport.

It’s got to be an eerie feeling traveling down a secluded dirt road, revealing twisting branches and a simple cross of the St. Johnannes cemetery when suddenly the sound of a commercial jet thunders overhead. The church also argued given the age of most of the graves, the wooden coffins likely would have disintegrated. Leaving behind only nails and bone fragments. Too fragile to be moved across town. But by the time everything was all said and done, the dispute ended in 2012 after the city muscled their way, forcing the cemetery to exhume over 900 graves through an eminent domain lawsuit.

Snowfall Chicago Skyline

This looks about what the city looked like as O’Hare shut down (Credit: Brandon Sharpe)

All that remains is a single cross which shows where the cemetery laid for 160 years. I haven’t been able to see it since the snow decided to fall at the most perfectly inopportune time. But the airport, however, was actually quite an experience. I’ve never been stuck at an airport. It’s one of those things straight out of a movie. Seeing people express every single emotion under the sun. I got to meet a few nice people (one who had been there for 48 hours since the airlines kept stringing him along.) I experienced true first world problems — none of the outlets worked (so my writing time was cut short and I played roulette with my phone’s battery.) In any case, I was one of the lucky ones. My dad was a hero and picked me back up in the blistering snow. While on the phone to reschedule my flight, the agent I spoke with booked me a business class seat. Spoiled, eh? Probably because I was nice to her and she sounded incredibly stressed ( most likely due to dealing with people like the person I mentioned at the top of this post.) As a bonus, I got to spend a few more days with the family. Finally, I was able to make it back to Los Angeles before 2016. Indeed a great way to finish off 2015. Hope everyone has a wonderful and productive new year! Try not to travel in the snow if you can help it.

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Also published on Medium.