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Kadner: Why one man cared about burials for the poor

Friday, May 11, 2012
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

“What we do about the dead says more about the living than the dead.”

Those are the words, spoken to me many years ago, of the Rev. Joseph Ledwell.

Ledwell, the longtime pastor of Homewood First Presbyterian Church before his death in 2008, presided over the funerals for Cook County’s poor at Homewood Memorial Gardens for more than 20 years.

It wasn’t his duty. No one assigned him the task. He just did it because he felt we, society, owed it to the dead.

Often, he was alone. In the rain, the snow and the summer heat, he prayed over the caskets of the forgotten, unidentified and indigent.

It was uniquely spiritual to watch Ledwell standing over a mass grave site in which dozens of plain wooden coffins were lined up, reading words from the Bible to the wind.

There’s something wrong and sad about the burial of a person who has no one there to cry for them — no mother, brother or children to say a few words in remembrance.

Certainly, among the hundreds of indigent buried by Cook County each year, there were some who had shown a kindness to their fellow man worth remembering.

Whether or not they had, it didn’t matter to Ledwell. He not only prayed for their souls but for the living as well.

Especially for the living. For Ledwell didn’t care about the bodies, his concern was for their souls. And ours.

And he felt strongly that by treating the dead as if they didn’t matter, by dumping the poor into mass graves without a word of goodbye, serious damage was being done to the living spirit in us all.

I think he was right when I hear about the way Cook County has neglected the bodies of the poor in the past year. They have piled up in the morgue because, it is said, the county government can no longer afford to place them in the earth.

County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-Chicago) is proposing that the county once again bury its dead on the grounds of what was Oak Forest Hospital.

He claims his plan would save money because Cook County owns the property. County Sheriff Tom Dart has said jail inmates would be available to provide labor, ranging from construction of the caskets to burial.

“Despite numerous efforts to inject dignity back into the process, our indigent burial program continually fails to meet the levels of reverence and oversight that reflect our societal values,” Fritchey stated in a news release.

Back when the county closed Oak Forest Hospital, I mentioned the history of the place.

More than 100 years ago, it was a farm where Chicago sent its poor to work and live. Later, the city sent its diseased citizens, suffering from TB and other infectious diseases, to Oak Forest.

Sent into exile, the poor often died and were buried there. It is hallowed ground.

Fritchey wants to place the new cemetery on five acres owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District adjacent to, and west of, the former cemetery. He contends that it would be large enough to handle Cook County’s dead for the next 100 years.

There’s a lot of focus right now on the poor who have died because of the controversy at the morgue and a recent flap over delayed burials at Homewood Memorial Gardens.

It’s interesting how people suddenly seem to care when previously they could not have cared less.

That’s the way it was in August 1995 as well, when 68 people were interred in a mass grave at Homewood Memorial Gardens. It was the largest mass burial anyone could remember in these parts.

The dead were part of a heat wave that summer that claimed 750 lives, and 41 of the bodies in the paupers grave were among the victims.

There were several preachers there for that one, and newspaper reporters from all over the country, including the Washington Post.

And Ledwell was there, as always, bemoaning the fact that so many people had died alone.

When the publicity was over, when everyone else turned their attention to more important things in life, Ledwell returned each month, alone once more.

It wasn’t just the elderly, who died unwanted, he noted. There were teenagers and babies, too. They were all reduced to numbers on a plywood box.

I think Ledwell was right, long ago, when he talked about these burials being more important for the living than for the dead.

“In a large city, it is too easy to ignore those who are in need or pass them on the street without noticing they are there,” he said.

I hope Fritchey’s resolution passes. And if it’s not too much to ask, that the cemetery be named after the Rev. Joseph Ledwell, the one man who always cared.

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