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‘Back gate’ is touchy subject

A hearse leads processiinMount Hope Cemetery last autumn. | Sun-Times Library

A hearse leads a procession into Mount Hope Cemetery last autumn. | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:37AM

Nothing riles up black people like being told to go to the back door.

This sensitivity is rooted in the blatant racism of the Jim Crow era when, among other indignities, black people weren’t allowed to go through the front door because of skin color.

Unfortunately, a plan being put forth by Ald. Matthew O’Shea (19th) and state Rep. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago), who represent residents who live near Mount Hope Cemetery on the Southwest Side, ignores that history.

The plan requires owners to put in a “back gate” to alleviate gridlock on 115th and Fairfield.

But traffic isn’t the only problem that put Mount Hope’s neighbors up in arms.

In September, a group of about 200 protesters stood outside the cemetery’s front gate with signs demanding that rowdy mourners taking part in so-called “gang funerals” respect the living and the dead.

Although cemetery owners agreed to build a back entrance to scuttle proposed legislation that would have severely limited the number of funerals that could be held in one day, they balked at the suggestion that they figure out a way to bring “gang funerals” through the back entrance once the construction is completed.

Scott Troost, president of Mount Hope Cemetery Association, said while no formal request has been made, the subject of directing “certain funerals” to the back gate did come up in meetings with O’Shea, Cunningham and police officials.

“Essentially, the request is that we figure out a way to divert a portion of our services,” he told me.

But Troost said unless he is notified by police, he doesn’t know if someone is a “gang member” or is suspected of “gang activity.”

“By our estimation, less than 2 percent of the deaths are due to violent activity,” he said.

Cunningham, who acknowledges meeting with Troost about the matter, said Mount Hope is being criticized on two fronts.

“Three weeks ago there were 29 funeral processions coming to the cemetery on a single day, and we are talking about a four-hour window. That’s a huge volume of traffic,” Cunningham said.

“At the same time, you have gang funerals that come to Mount Hope. When they are going to have 29 funeral processions, they can use the [new] gate to bring in a handful of processions,” he pointed out.

“It is in the hands of Troost what kind of back gate they build. If they want to build a gravel lot that looks like an alley, I can see that being offensive.”

It would be up to the district police commander to decide that a certain funeral procession should be brought through the back gate, Cunningham said.

“If that is what the police commander asked for, that is something that would make sense.”

O’Shea did not return a call for comment.

Mount Hope is in this position because it is a successful business.

“This family decided to set prices that are affordable. It’s like a line of people that are going to Wal-Mart,” said Edward Calahan, president and owner of Calahan Funeral Home in Englewood.

“The gang-related situation is a law issue and has nothing to do with the cemetery. If they are doing something illegal, that is a police issue. You can’t push a grieving mother to the back door of the cemetery.”

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that gang funerals would be treated like “gang events” after an alleged gang member was gunned down on the steps of St. Columbanus after a funeral for another murder victim. Now people who use a funeral as an excuse to drink publicly and disturb the general public are likely to be picked up by police.

Because Mount Hope services many African-American families, it will be ground zero for this aggressive gang policing strategy.

But frankly, if people are acting a fool in a funeral procession, they should be pulled over by police and dealt with before they get to the cemetery.

“I think labeling us as a gang cemetery is unfair. For the vast majority of the families that we service, the deceased died of natural causes,” Troost said.

“In our capacity, what we are able to do is try to mitigate traffic congestion, but we are not the police. We don’t have the authority to address gang concerns. When there is an issue, we call the police like any other citizen,” Troost said.

“The fact of the matter, according to the newly passed Cemetery Act, it is against the law to discriminate based upon age, sex, creed or race,” he said. “It is our lawful duty to accept and bury the decedents when we are asked to do so.”

Black families shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens because unGodly people don’t know how to behave at a funeral anymore than they know how to behave on the streets.

The back door is still the back door.

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