Chicago magazine

BURIAL RIGHTS

The grassless patch of land, about half the size of a football field, had been cleared so hastily that pools of muddy water still filled the ruts made by the earthmovers’ tires. The road leading to the parcel had yet to be paved, and the cars in the funeral procession that was now arriving kicked up clods of dirt as they approached. Set as it was in the otherwise lush acreage of Mount Hope Cemetery, bordering the South Side neighborhood of Morgan Park, the barren expanse more closely resembled a makeshift parking lot than a burial ground.

Standing on one of the sheets of plywood put down to protect visitors from the mud, Mount Hope’s general manager, Perry Walker, watched the group of mourners, some clutching flowers, exit their cars and trudge up a slope to one of two rectangles cut into the earth. The first plot was for the family now gathering. The second, about a dozen yards away, was reserved for a burial that would follow immediately. A group of cars for that burial had already lined up. By the end of the day, four more groups of mourners would lay a loved one to rest here.

This constituted a slow day at Mount Hope, which has recently been averaging a round 60 burials a week as the city endures another COVID-19 surge. Walker told me that having 15 or 20 interments in a single day is not uncommon. Hence the rushed and muddy expansion.

The increase in demand, Walker said, has required his beleaguered and emotionally exhausted staff to operate with the precision of air traffic controllers while still consoling families who have in some cases lost multiple members to COVID-19 — a stark reminder of the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on African Americans, who make up 90 percent of Mount Hope’s customers. Amid all this, the employees have had to grapple with the risk of catching the coronavirus themselves. As he took me on a drive around the bucolic grounds of the 150-acre cemetery, talking to me by phone from his car while I followed in my own, Walker — a Louisiana native in

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