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County-run cemeteries not defiled but often neglected

Thursday, July 30, 2009
SouthtownStar
by Amy Lee

Stumbling across human bones has become a not-uncommon occurrence in cemeteries in the Southland.

Investigations continue into a grisly conspiracy to unearth bodies and resell hundreds of final resting spots at Burr Oak cemetery in Alsip. Workers allegedly dumped bodies in a mass grave behind cemetery offices.

And this week, sheriff deputies launched a second cemetery investigation when a delivery man spotted a human bone lying in the grass at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens South, near Glenwood.

The gruesome gravesites tarnish Cook County's reputation locally and nationwide, and county leaders, including board President Todd Stroger, have repeatedly denounced the private cemetery operators and employees for incompetence and inhumane treatment of the departed.

But county leaders are also stewards of three county-owned cemeteries, and a recent tour of two in the Southland show county cemeteries aren't getting much attention, either.

At Mount Forest Cemetery, located in Thornton and abandoned in 1939, just two headstones could be seen through the waist-high weeds from a two-track gravel path, and a few silk purple silk flowers decorated a small wooden cross on the largest intact headstone - the final resting place of two children, Edna and Effie, who died in 1915 and 1916, respectively.

County records show 300 graves dotted this site at one point, however, village leaders say families exhumed and reburied many of the bodies in other locations throughout the years.

"I haven't found any femurs or tibias or anything laying around like in the ones you're hearing about," said Thornton Mayor Jack Swan. "It's neglected and pretty overgrown, but no bones laying around."

Cook County's three graveyards

In addition to Mount Forest on the east side of Chicago Road near 175th Street, Cook County owns the one-acre Bachelors Grove in the Rubio Woods Forest Preserve near Midlothian. Both are long-defunct and situated in now-neglected areas surrounded by county forest preserves. The county also owns the tiny Glenview Cemetery, but the adjacent Glen View Club maintains that less than one-acre site.

The trio is an unsolicited inheritance for the county, which prefers to focus its manpower and taxpayer cash on public services such as road maintenance, public safety and health programs.

All three reverted to county ownership when previous owners died or went bankrupt, according to Ray Muldoon, director of the county's real estate management division. The county is charged with maintaining the sites and shares policing duties with municipalities and forest preserve officers, he said.

"There's not a lot that goes on out there, basically mowing and making sure the fences are secure," Muldoon said. "But every time they do Bachelors Grove, it's undone the next day."

Ghost-hunting clean-up crew

That's because Bachelors Grove has an ever-growing reputation for haunting and unexplained phenomena, and has a cult-like group of devotees who regularly frequent the site. It's estimated some 130 souls were laid to rest at Bachelors Grove from 1884 through 1965.

"The overgrowth is ridiculous. It's been in bad shape for forever," said John Stephenson, 50, a Frankfort resident and paranormal paramour who frequents Bachelors Grove Cemetery at least once a week.

Stephenson heads a popular Web site - www.bachelors-grove.com - and organized a large-scale cleanup of the site in May.

He urges visitors to bring a garbage bag to keep the spooky site debris-free, but county and forest preserve rules prevent visitors from mowing or trimming overgrowth.

"It adds to the ambiance, that's for sure," Stephenson said.

Amy Lee can be reached at alee@southtownstar.com or (708) 633-5992.



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